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SumOfUs

The presidential race is underway, so we should expect to hear more about money in politics from the candidates.

It is, after all, a factor that determines how politicians respond to all other issues and ultimately how people's lives will be affected by the policy outcomes.


Photo by Peter Stevens/Flickr.

So far, it hasn't come up as much as you'd think it would. For example, in the first two Republican presidential debates, the topic of money in politics was mostly avoided.

The exceptions were the occasional jab by Donald Trump at competitors he's funded in the past and this rare moment of partial recognition of the problem by Mike Huckabee:

"[W]e have a Wall Street-to-Washington axis of power that has controlled the political climate. The donor class feeds the political class who does the dance that the donor class wants."

Unfortunately, none of the more than a dozen candidates on stage came with an idea to share about how to fix the problem.

Money has become the biggest player in U.S. politics, but it's not always clear why that is and how it works.

Before you demonize any candidate for poisoning the democracy well, let's take stock of what's really happening. Here are the key things you need to know:

1. The early bird gets the loot.

Photo by Sheila Sund/Flickr.

In the early days of American politics, nominees were picked in backroom deals with party bigwigs. Primary elections were supposed to change that. At best, they were a way to make the process more transparent and democratic. They also made the contest a little more accessible to lesser-known "dark horse" candidates.

But the rise in competition stretched out campaign cycles as candidates hustled for position with political donors. Longer campaigns meant candidates needed more money, and so began the cyclical money-grab that defines American politics.

2. It's become an unfair tug-of-war.

Photo by skeeze/Pixabay.

Wealth inequality has reached obscene levels. Today, the top tenth of a percent of U.S. households (those with $20 million or more in assets) owns as much of the country's wealth as the bottom 90% combined.

Knowing that, it shouldn't come as a surprise that nearly half of all first-phase presidential campaign funds were donated by only 158 families and the companies they control. 138 of of those families back exclusively Republican candidates.

3. It's not illegal if you can't see who's doing it.

Photo by -JvL-/Flickr (altered).

There's a cap on what donors can give candidates, but when wealthy influencers want something, they can't be bothered with rules. So they created a shadow market for political donations, where they can dump money into politics through nonprofits — anonymously and without limits, thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.

They call it "dark money," and there's been a five-fold spike in such spending since the last general election. And speaking of rich families, 1 in 4 dollars of dark money spent in 2012 were linked to billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The political kingpins are out to set another record by raising nearly $1 billion for the 2016 elections through their network of dark money donors.

While those donations only go to conservative candidates and policies, even Republican leadership has gotten shifty about their growing power over the party — just not shifty enough to actually do something about it.

4. There is no room for agreement. Only domination.

Photo by Spot Us/Flickr (altered).

We know the richest political donors have a thing for conservative candidates, but that doesn't explain the stalemates on issues that most Americans agree on. For example:

So why haven't we celebrated unity and progress on any of those issues? Why aren't we leveraging the country's vast resources to lift people up, save more lives, protect the environment, and be as awesomesauce as politicians love saying we are?

Well, it's not really about "the people," let alone the planet. Donors like the Koch brothers don't drop cash like that to advance common interests — they do it in service of themselves. (I think now's a good time for this refresher.)

If money is the root of all evil, why do we let it rule our lives in such fundamental ways through politics?

Keep that in mind as the spectacle of the presidential race unfolds because there's more to governing than whose team wins. And if it's not already clear, the players aren't just the suits we see going tit for tat on the debate stage.

Everyone deserves a fair say in the electoral process, and the rest of us shouldn't have to stand aside while people who have more than they'll ever need call all the shots.

Can you imagine a future where good ideas and consensus — not just the biggest bank accounts — rule the day? Don't count on it until political leaders start getting honest about what's driving American politics and start showing the will to change it.

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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