“Hey, my name is Pen. I’ve been traveling around the Bay Area asking people what makes them mad and what they’re doing to fix it. May I interview you?”

I recited this phrase, or some variation thereof, so many times on Wednesday Nov. 11, 2015, it started to lose meaning. Twelve hours of riding around on public transportation asking the same question to people — and even more time asking it to myself. It reminded me of that one day I said the word "spoon" a million times and ended up thinking: Why in the hell did they call it that in the first place? What does it really mean? What does it all really mean!?!

At one point, I got mad at the question. At another point, I got angry with the premise of the project I was working on.


These are some of the folks I met. All photos by Pen Harshaw, used with permission.

The distance traveled pissed me off. The time it took to conduct the interviews annoyed me. The technology I was using made me frustrated a couple of times. And the people who wouldn’t speak to me — especially those who shut me down before I could fully state the aforementioned phrase — gave me the greatest inspiration to be mad.

This project started out of genuine curiosity. I wanted to know what makes people mad and what could be done to fix it?

Prior to pestering people on public transportation, I posed a question to myself.

I don’t like injustice, police brutality, lack of resources in "third world countries," the term "third world country," student loans — oh man, do I despise those! I don’t like when people put recycling in the trash, I hate prisons, and I’m disgusted by slavery. The line at the DMV perturbs me. Speaking of lines: my receding hairline? I’m not a fan. Oh, and when the toilet seat doesn’t stay up as I’m taking a piss — it makes me want to shake my fist at the sky.

I hate it when people are mean to each other for no reason at all. C’mon, we already have to deal with systems of oppression and glitchy technology, and then you run into a rude person on the subway who just needs to let their anger out on someone — and you happen to be that someone. That’s uncalled for.

These are all things that could make me mad, but I choose not to let them. I’ve read articles about happiness being a choice, and I believe that anger is a choice as well. Instead of getting mad, I get motivated. I choose to take that energy and use it to change the situation. If I can’t change it, I don’t trip.

So, that line at the DMV, the glitchy technology, and that vanishing hairline — I let those be. But the institution of prison, student loans, and the rude person on the train — I fight those with my words.

After gaining this understanding about myself, though, I wanted to know: What makes other people angry? I wanted to travel Bay Area public transportation for 12 hours interviewing people about human concerns and resolutions. I wanted to listen to them.

So that's what I did.

At the end of the daylong experiment, I sat in the Chipotle up the block from the Ferry Building on Market Street in San Francisco, filing my final interviews.

The results:

A 15-year-old African-American boy blew my mind when he said that some black people make him mad — “the ghetto ones.”

A cab driver from Pittsburgh caught me off guard when he candidly let me know that self-medicating was the solution to his anger.

Tom, the cab driver, told me: "I try not to get too mad lately. I try to think positive, stay positive, and have good thoughts. Sometimes I still get mad, but I try not to focus on it. If do get mad, it’s at pain; my body hurts a lot, but it’s getting better."

A 79-year-old French woman waiting at a bus stop in Richmond explained that she lives by herself and doesn’t get mad at herself; hence, she is happy. And I believe her.

And then there was 26-year-old Tommy Cross who explained, on his way to work, that the lack of opportunities for those who need them most is what pisses him off.

Tommy works in education, he told me, where he combats this struggle every day.

In the end, I conducted 28 interviews on the record, and many others off the record.

But the folks I spoke to in person were only part of the story. People all over the world also responded to my initial Medium post with vivid, sometimes emotional, accounts of what makes them mad, from drivers failing to stop for the disabled to the ugly fissures in Silicon Valley.

Some wrote about feeling powerless; others condemned senseless acts of violence. One woman opened up about the danger she faces taking public transportation at night.

There were a lot that I did not see coming: war in Yemen and pigeons in the Mission.

Two teens named Hoods and Jetz told me that pebbles in the street make them mad; they can deal with the unwarranted filming and scooter kids, but the pebbles — there’s nothing they can do about those.

Adyson is 16. What makes him mad? "When they say stuff without thinking and when they want attention! It’s aggravating. It gets me really mad. C’mon man, you’re embarrassing yourself!"

I was humbled by Reese, a 31-year-old musician and audio engineer, who told me that he gets upset when people aren’t chasing their true purpose, their dream — a selfless concern if I’ve ever heard one.

I laughed at the fact that just about every person between the ages of 15 and 32 said they don’t like liars, posers, misconceptions of the truth, or stereotypes.

I laughed because that’s the “digital native” generation — a group that has seen massive amounts of lies and misinformation from individuals and institutions come across their computer screens, phones, and televisions since they were born.

William, age 37, told me that liars made him mad. "Just a bunch of liars  —  lying. I don’t like it."

Being a product of that generation, I understand. When I turned their responses around, asking them if they ever lie or cheat, every single person admitted to the same offenses.

I understand this too. I tell a lie every now and then. I’m not proud of it, but I’m human.

And in the end, that’s what this project brought to light: We’re all human. With human concerns. And human reactions.

While approaching people at random, I noticed something: Most people’s first instinct was to acknowledge the anger caused by the actions of other humans. This was surprising — I had expected people to name some of the bigger, overarching problems facing our society today: income inequality, San Francisco’s tech bubble, police brutality, public transportation, the city’s housing crisis.

But instead, a large majority of folks commented on their relationships, their emotions, and their feelings. More often than not, people told me about being lied to or betrayed by a trusted “friend.” A number of people in customer service roles discussed “how to deal with people.”

There was the woman who didn’t like when people litter.

There was the guy who didn’t like people talking behind his back.

There was Kathy, who gets annoyed by the homeless folks who camp out in her coffee shop:

And Carlos, who gets mad when people ask him where the bathroom is.

The skater kids were mad at the scooter kids; other teens were frustrated by people who don’t listen, people who don’t pay attention, fake people.

The common thread was that we get angry about how people treat people.

People. That’s the root of other people’s anger. So what are people going to do about it? That’s a question for all of us.

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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