Political historian's daily letters give helpful—and hopeful—context to today's politics

Heather Cox Richardson didn't set out to build a fan base when she started her daily "Letters from an American." The Harvard-educated political historian and Boston College professor had actually just been stung by a yellow-jacket as she was leaving on a trip from her home in Maine to teach in Boston last fall when she wrote her first post.

Since she's allergic to bees, she decided to stay put and see how badly her body would react. With some extra time on her hands, she decided to write something on her long-neglected Facebook page. It was September of 2019, and Representative Adam Schiff had just sent a letter to the Director of National Intelligence stating that the House knew there was a whistleblower complaint, the DNI wasn't handing it over, and that wasn't legal.

"I recognized, because I'm a political historian, that this was the first time that a member of Congress had found a specific law that they were accusing a specific member of the executive branch of violating," Richardson told Bill Moyers in an interview in July. "So I thought, you know, I oughta put that down, 'cause this is a really important moment. If you knew what you were looking for, it was a big moment. So I wrote it down..."

By the time she got to Boston she has a deluge of questions from people about what she'd written.


"It was clear that the readers wanted to know more," she said. "They seemed to want to know the answers, so I wrote again...And I've written every night since because questions just poured in, and people flooded me with questions about what was going on. And who were the players? And how was this going to play out? And what were the laws, and why should I have any hope that this was gonna turn out in a good way? And this was just something that really was sort of reader-driven, not driven by me at all. And I think that's probably why it's had such staying power."

For a year now, Richardson has synopsized the day's political news in a way that only a historian can. She places everything into the big picture of American history while also offering facts and details that help readers understand the significance of what's happening at the moment.

Prior to her letters, Richardson was best known as an academic for the five books she's written, including "How the South Won the Civil War," and "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party." Now, everyday Americans love her for her informative daily Facebook posts.

In an age where people build personal social media brands around being sensational, entertaining, or the loudest voice in the room, Richardson's concise, historical, fact-based, no-drama posts are an unlikely way to form a following, but here we are. In 2020 there are still a whole lot of us who are desperate for a steady, knowledgeable voice of reason and sanity, and Richardson's posts have have become lifelines of knowledge and hope for the nearly 600,000 readers who follow her Facebook page.

Part of Richardson's appeal is her clear love of the topic. "I take our government extraordinarily seriously," she told Moyers. "I have lived with American politics really since I was about 21, and maybe earlier because I was really first aware of the world during Watergate. And I care deeply about our traditions, about our heritage, about democracy. I'm happy to criticize it, because I always want it to be better, but I take that stuff really seriously."

Another part of her appeal is that she is able to take the rapid pace of the news cycle, the constant craziness of our political climate, the complex patterns of history, and the way each of those things intertwines, and then condense it down into a 1200-word, easy-to-read "letter" that anyone can digest.

Having a political historian providing context is a huge gift, especially in the era of Donald Trump as president. While he clearly tramples over political and democratic norms—which some love and some hate—it's not like we haven't seen politicians like him before. In fact, his tactics are straight out of an autocratic playbook.

"It's not just that he's good at reading an audience, and it's not just that he himself might have a short attention span," Richardson told Moyers about Trump. "If you continually change the subject, you continually stay one step ahead of the story, you can do a couple of things. First of all, you can control the narrative, because by the time people have fact-checked you, you're already onto the next story. Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s developed that tactic really carefully. Because the media simply couldn't catch up with the stories, by the time you fact-checked 'em, they were fourth-page news. And there was the first-page story of something else outrageous. So it's partly to control the narrative, but it's also something I think more nefarious with this particular president. And that is that, if you, as Steve Bannon said, 'flood the zone with expletive–' what you do is, you keep your audience off guard all the time. They never know what the truth is. They never know what's coming next, and they don't know how to answer to any of it. And it's a game of psychological warfare, if you will. But if you keep knocking people around enough, eventually what they will do is simply say, 'I don't care. It's too much for me. Everybody's lying. I don't know what's real. Just make it all go away.' And when you do that, the way is pretty clearly open for an autocrat to step in."

Richardson eloquently explains some of the realities—or alternate realities—that have so many of us baffled in the disinformation age. One of her areas of expertise is how politicians and political parties deliberately construct narratives to create their own reality; it's something she's spent a lot of her research time studying.

But the main draw to Richardson's letters is how well she distills and contextualizes everything the way a history book would—only she does it for us in real time.

Writer Elly Lonon summed it up perfectly:

"Honestly, if democracy were a tv series, Heather Cox Richardson would be that little blurb that runs before the actual show starts. You know, 'Previously, in Democracy...' and then the summary so you remember where you left off and what you're supposed to be paying attention to."

It is definitely worth a click to follow her on Facebook.

She also hosts fairly frequent Facebook Live History & Politics chats in which she answers reader questions about things in the news. Her video from today addresses the I.C.E. whistleblower complaint about COVID handling and mass hysterectomies in an I.C.E. detention facility, gives some history of eugenics and poverty and wealth in the U.S., and explores whether or not there will likely be another coronavirus stimulus bill. It's a worthwhile way to spend an hour.

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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