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Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Her punishment's been much worse.

No matter your opinion on this Wikileaks source, it matters how she's treated.

It's been more than three years since former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning was convicted of leaking government documents.

In 2013, Manning was found guilty of stealing and disseminating 750,000 pages of documents and videos to WikiLeaks. As a result of her crimes, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.


Depending on your point of view, Manning is either a hero or heretic. On one hand, she helped expose torture, abuse, and other abhorrent actions by the U.S. military; on the other, it's entirely possible that releasing classified documents to the public put American lives at risk. While few could argue her innocence — she pretty clearly broke the law — the moral judgment remained far more nebulous, not neatly fitting into boxes of "good" or "bad."

At the time of her conviction, 52% of Americans viewed Manning as a traitor.

Being transgender has complicated things for Manning.

Part of her struggle is directly related to the fact that she is a transgender woman; in prison, she has been forced to comply with male grooming standards regarding the length of her hair. Additionally, she's had to fight for access to medically necessary hormone replacement therapy treatment.

How Chelsea Manning sees herself. By Alicia Neal, in cooperation with Chelsea herself, commissioned by the Chelsea Manning Support Network.

At every turn, it seems like Manning's jailers are looking for reasons to further punish her. In July, Manning attempted to kill herself by hanging in her cell. Later that month, Army officials announced that as a result of her suicide attempt, Manning would face additional charges that could result in indefinite solitary confinement and an additional nine years in prison without the chance of parole.

According to her attorney, Chase Strangio, Manning's living conditions constitute "cruel and unusual punishment."

"This is not about accommodations or 'special rights,' but about recognized legal standards for equal treatment and the provision of medically necessary care," Strangio wrote in an email. Courts have routinely recognized that medically necessary treatment for gender dysphoria cannot be withheld solely because the treatment is stigmatized or less understood.

"When we incarcerate people against their will, we, as a society, have an obligation to see to it that their medical needs are met," Strangio explained.

Soldiers outside the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Manning is being held. Photo by the U.S. Army.

On August 9, Manning announced that she would be going on a hunger strike to protest her living conditions.

"Today, I have decided that I am no longer going to be bullied by this prison — or by anyone within the U.S. government," she wrote. "I have asked for nothing but the dignity and respect — that I once actually believed would be provided for — afforded to any living human being."

"We must care for those whose freedom we restrict." — Chase Strangio

She pledged to refuse all food and drink with the exception of water and her currently prescribed medications until she is given "minimum standards of dignity, respect, and humanity." Adding that she has submitted a "do not resuscitate" letter, Manning acknowledged that her protest may very well lead to her death.

When asked what meeting Manning's demands of dignity and respect would look like, Strangio highlighted two key things that need to change about her treatment in prison.

First is the matter of receiving medically necessary care to treat her gender dysphoria, including permission for her to adhere to the hair length and grooming standards of female inmates.

The U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Photo by the U.S. Army.

Second is the matter of being allegedly held to different standards than other prisoners when it comes to punishment. Strangio listed a number of things, ranging from possession of expired toothpaste to improper labeling of reading materials to the aforementioned suicide attempt.

Manning wants a written confirmation from the military that they're able to meet these requests. On Sep. 13th, Manning ended her hunger strike after receiving assurance from the military that she will be given access to transition-related health care.

Manning's hunger strike is a bold move, and it's drawing attention not just to her plight, but to that of prisoners around the world.

Manning's hunger strike should matter to all of us who believe in a true system of justice. Arbitrarily withholding medical treatment from prisoners — whether stemming from misunderstanding or malice or "because that's just the way it is" — erodes the Constitutional protections we've developed as a society.

"Chelsea is in pain and she is under our care because we have decided as a society to detain her," Strangio adds. "We must care for those whose freedom we restrict."

Poor, and possibly unconstitutional, treatment of prisoners affects more than just those in military prisons like Manning.

Inmates in at least four states recently went on strike to protest what they say amounts to forced labor, making just cents an hour for their work behind bars.

Photo by Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images.

No matter how you feel about Manning's actions, there are good reasons to support her in this struggle.

It may be easy to brush off the needs of people who've been convicted of a crime. It may be easy to justify inhumane treatment with lines like, "If they didn't want to be treated like that, they shouldn't have committed a crime," but that's not who we are — or at least it's not who we aspire to be.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

When Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison, she was sentenced to just that: 35 years in prison. She wasn't sentenced to 35 years in prison and denial of medically necessary health care. She wasn't sentenced to 35 years in prison and humiliation. She wasn't sentenced to 35 years in prison and the loss of her gender.

The same goes for prisoners around the country being subjected to substandard conditions. Our justice system, while imperfect, is meant to set the limits of punishment; it's unfair to arbitrarily add onto it. Doing so, justifying negative treatment, sets a very dangerous precedent that can undermine our very existence as a country and as a society.

It starts with caring. It starts with empathy. It starts with you.

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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