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A trans contestant on 'Survivor,' 1 huge mistake, and 7 ways others helped make it right.

Life is messy and complicated, but there are important lessons to be learned.

"There is deception here," Jeff Varner said. Ordinarily, on "Survivor," this would be normal. What he said next, however, wasn't.

"Why haven't you told anyone that you're transgender?" he said, looking at contestant Zeke Smith. Uh-oh.

All GIFs from SurvivorOnCBS/YouTube.


Outing someone as transgender — even if it's for the chance to win $1 million on a reality TV show — is 100% not OK.

Luckily, this story has a (somewhat) happy ending.

Not all trans people are "out" as trans, or might only be open about it to close friends and family. Not every trans person goes around announcing they are trans — especially to millions of people on TV — nor should they feel obligated to.

That said, the idea that trans people who don't disclose being trans to everyone around them are being "deceptive" is an all-too-common trope, and it can have some really nasty consequences.

It was a shame to see Varner champion that idea, but if you look to how the other contestants reacted, it was a perfect demonstration of how to be a good ally to trans people.

[rebelmouse-image 19529336 dam="1" original_size="750x559" caption="All photos from CBS/"Survivor."" expand=1]All photos from CBS/"Survivor."

1. The other contestants jumped in to let Varner know what he did wasn't OK.

When Varner asked why Zeke didn't tell the other contestants he was trans, Zeke was caught off-guard and sat in stunned silence. Thankfully, his fellow contestants spoke up, letting Varner know what he did was wrong.

2. They helped educate Varner about why outing someone is wrong.

Outing people can have very real, negative consequences. Trans people are subjected to discrimination and violence based on their gender identity, and in many states it's still legal to fire someone, deny them housing, or ban them from using restrooms because of who they are.

Understandably, many trans people carefully select who they will and won't come out to. It's a decision that should never be left up to someone else, and the other contestants let Varner know.

3. They gave Zeke the chance to speak for himself when he was ready.

"There are people who know [that I'm trans]," said Zeke. "But then I sort of got to a point where I stopped telling people because when people know that about you, that's sort of who you are. There are questions people ask. People want to know about your life. ... It sort of overwhelms everything else that they know about you."

4. They took the opportunity to grow as individuals.

"I'm just thankful that I got to know Zeke for who Zeke is. I've been with him for the last 18 days, and he's super kick-ass," said Sarah. "I'm from the Midwest, and I come from a very conservative background. It's not very diverse when it comes to a lot of gay and lesbian and transgender and things like that. I'm not exposed to it as much as most of these people are. The fact that I can love this guy so much and it doesn't change anything for me makes me realize that I've grown huge as a person."

5. They offered Zeke solidarity, making a unanimous decision to boot Varner off the show.

They didn't even have to vote. Even Varner knew, saying, "I'm ready to go." He took responsibility for his actions. He knew he made a mistake almost immediately and what the consequences would be.

6. Varner offered a heartfelt apology without condition or qualifications, and he's doing the necessary work to atone for his wrongdoing.

People make mistakes, and while we rarely have the opportunity to undo them, we can try to learn from them and make the world a better place. That's what Varner seems to be doing.

In an interview with Parade, Varner owned up to what he did:

"I just pray and hope for his safety. What I did that night was horrible. I opened him up to discrimination and to danger and to crime. Everything horrible. I robbed him of his ability to be. ... There are no excuses for what I did. Not at all."

But beyond that, he used the opportunity to speak out about what's going on in his home state of North Carolina.

"We have to stop as a society discriminating against trans people and minimizing and separating from them. ... We need to lift their voices and help them and not reduce them to body parts and surgeries and things that objectify and dehumanize them. These are wonderful people who are not only trying to live their authentic lives, but thrive. And I think stupid bathroom bills and things like that, especially in the state of North Carolina ... it’s not about bathrooms. It’s about whether trans people have the right to exist in public."

7. As for Zeke, he's trying to make the best of a bad situation. Life's messy, and forgiveness can be a complicated act.

Writing at the Hollywood Reporter, Zeke outlined exactly why what Varner did was wrong.

"In calling me deceptive, Varner invoked one of the most odious stereotypes of transgender people, a stereotype that is often used as an excuse for violence and even murder. ... I don’t believe Varner hates trans people, just as I don’t believe conservative politicians who attack trans people actually care where we use the bathroom. For both, trans people make easy targets for those looking to invoke prejudice in order to win votes."

On whether he forgives Varner:

"But forgiveness does not require friendship. Forgiveness does not require forgetting or excusing his actions. Forgiveness requires hope. Hope that he understands the injury he caused and does not inflict it upon others. Hope that whatever torments his soul will plague him no more. I have hope for Jeff Varner. I just choose to hope from afar, thank you very much."

Out of one horrible act came messy progress.

Connections Academy

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

True

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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