Like so many others, eye doctor Jarrett Johnson lost everything when Hurricane Katrina struck.

Her home? Flooded. Her optometry practice? Destroyed. Her family? Displaced and stranded throughout the city of New Orleans.

One phone call, though, was about to change her life. Maybe even more so than the storm itself.


Johnson and her kids were lucky enough to get out of New Orleans in time.

"My husband and I always had a plan," she told me. In the days and hours leading up to the storm, she packed up her office and sent her staff home. Then she jumped into a car with her children, just 2 and 6 years old at the time, and started driving.

Johnson's office was dismantled by storm waters from Hurricane Katrina. All photos courtesy of VSP Global.

After an 18-hour trek through flooded and crowded streets, she found herself in a little hotel in Horn Lake, Mississippi. Then Memphis. Her husband stayed in New Orleans for his job. Her father and brother-in-law did, too. Some other family members had made it to Houston, where she eventually joined them.

It was chaos. But at least she and her children were safe.

That's when the phone rang.

VSP Global, one of the largest vision care companies in the world, wanted her to come back to New Orleans.

At first, she thought they were nuts.

But VSP was adamant. They were scraping together a team of eye doctors — yes, eye doctors — to help out with the relief efforts. Johnson knew the city. She had treated thousands of patients there over the years. She was a perfect fit.

Johnson evaluates an eye patient.

But leaving her family behind wasn't an easy decision.

"My husband was very, very frightened" of the prospect of her going back, she said. "New Orleans wasn't the safest place at the time. All the looting and those kinds of things. A lot of black mold. He was concerned about my well-being and my health."

But she did go back. And what she found when she arrived in the city devastated her.

"I could see in the distance, just these long lines of people. I kept thinking, 'What were they doing?' As I got closer, it was lines of people waiting for water and other lines of people waiting to get their eyes examined."

We all saw Katrina's mass destruction on the news. But what we didn't see were the thousands of people who lost their glasses and contacts.

A piece of eyewear is such a small thing, but without it, some Katrina survivors couldn't do basic tasks. Couldn't navigate the city. Couldn't fill out FEMA paperwork. Couldn't begin to rebuild their lives.

And then there were the first-line defenders. The police and firemen who had lost their own eyewear in the fray. Without it, they couldn't see. And they couldn't help.

But there was another problem. Johnson and her peers had no building and no equipment to do their work. The city was still in shambles.

"I had to get in there and do something," she said. "I had worked in Central America and Costa Rica before; all those skills just kicked in. I immediately started making makeshift exam rooms."

Docked cruise ships were used to house emergency personnel. They also made good eye clinics.

She helped establish clinics anywhere she could, one of the largest ones inside a cruise ship dining room. She set up makeshift eyewear dispensaries, along with a network of helpers to form a sort of patchwork postal chain to get supplies into the city. Hopping from clinic to clinic, Johnson helped people get new glasses or contacts and also worked to stop the spread of severe eye infections due to the black mold caused by all the flooding.

All of this while living on the second floor of her home, since the first floor was completely drowned in sewage.

All in all, Johnson and her fellow optometrists treated 10,000 people over the six months following Katrina.

Johnson (left) poses with other volunteers.

But one patient stood out in her memory among the rest.

He was a man she recognized from her practice. He told her his home was destroyed and that he waded through waist-deep water for hours trying to get to the Superdome with his hard contact lenses, needed to treat a serious eye condition, on his tongue the whole time so he wouldn't lose them.

He made it to the Superdome, she remembers him saying. But after hours of wading and swimming, physically and mentally drained, he somehow lost the lenses after all.

When he arrived at one of her makeshift clinics, he was completely disoriented. And desperate to get his sight back.

Thanks to Johnson and the others, people like him were able to see again. And from there, they could finally begin picking up the pieces of what was lost.

As for Johnson? She doesn't want kudos. She says the experience helped her heal.

"The people of New Orleans were grateful," she said. "But myself and the other doctors, we had lost our jobs, our homes, our income, and even our family members. This gave us an opportunity to fill some of that emptiness."

Giving back was her way of beginning again. Whether she wants the title or not, that makes her a hero.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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There are a lot of reasons to feel a twinge of nostalgia for the final days of the 20th century. Rampant inflation, a global pandemic and political unrest have created a sense of uneasiness about the future that has everyone feeling a bit down.

There’s also a feeling that the current state of pop culture is lacking as well. Nobody listens to new music anymore and unless you’re into superheroes, it seems like creativity is seriously missing from the silver screen.

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Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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Johnny Depp and Amber Heard Trial Cold Open - SNL www.youtube.com

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