Renee Bracey Sherman was 19 when she had an abortion, and she doesn't regret it.

That, she says, is why she was livid after encountering activist Lori Szala's stark, anti-abortion op-ed in The New York Times, which is generating furious responses from readers.

Photo by Zach Gibson/AFP/Getty Images.


In the piece, Szala argues that labeling abortion an economic issue is "dehumanizing," both to prospective parents for whom child-rearing should be about more than money and to their prospective children.

"Parenting presents undeniable challenges, but no one argues that those challenges give parents the right to kill their children.

It’s also patronizing, and patently dishonest. Of course unplanned pregnancy presents challenges. But it doesn’t have to lead to economic failure. Abortion is society’s easy way out — its way of avoiding grappling with the fundamental injustices driving women to abortion clinics."

It's a belief, Szala explains, that is largely derived from her personal experience as a young mother-to-be who nearly ended her pregnancy — though she ultimately chose not to.

Pressured to abort when she became pregnant in high school, Szala says that she was dissuaded by a friend who told her she'd had an abortion and later came to regret her decision.

Bracey Sherman wants people to know that her choice to end her pregnancy without guilt is common to far more women — and there's data to back her up.

A longitudinal study published in 2015 found that 95% of women who had abortions felt that it had been the right decision. And other research has found that women seeking abortions are more certain in their decision than people considering other surgeries.

If she had the chance, Bracey Sherman says, she would ask Szala if she appreciated the freedom to make her decision on her own terms.

"Isn’t it nice that you had a choice?" Bracey Sherman asks, rhetorically. "Someone didn’t force you to do something that you didn’t want to do, whether it was to continue the pregnancy or not. Isn’t it nice that you had a choice?"

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

At the time of her pregnancy, Bracey Sherman says she was working a low-wage retail job and in an abusive relationship. The notion that people who are pregnant — particularly people of color — can simply pull themselves "up by [their] bootstraps" and make it work as a parent is a dangerous myth, she argues.

"[Szala] ignores the fact that so many people don’t even have boots."

Other critics of Szala's piece argue that, in a rush to chastise women who end their pregnancies, she fails to offer solutions for preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place.

Some pointed out that Szala, who works for an organization that owns and operates crisis pregnancy centers, could stand to benefit financially from people taking her advice.

Still others argued that terminating a pregnancy — for any reason — should always be a matter of choice and insisting it shouldn't be often comes from a desire to punish or control women.

Bracey Sherman wants more women to tell their friends and family about their experiences with abortion, especially in the face of a surge in high-profile, anti-choice opinion pieces like Szala's making it into print.

A 2014 study conducted by Sarah Cowen at New York University found that people who are opposed to reproductive rights are roughly 21% less likely to say they know someone who has had an abortion than those who are pro-choice. Bracey Sherman believes that's not by chance — and that people who terminate their pregnancies may be less likely to tell their anti-choice friends and relatives.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

"Everybody loves someone who has had an abortion," she says. "Pro-life people have abortions, religious people have abortions, we all have abortions," she says.

After getting involved with reproductive rights activism, Bracey Sherman started a project called "We Testify," which highlights the stories of people who have terminated pregnancies in an attempt to broker an understanding with those across the aisle.

If people aren't hearing, she believes, it's not for lack of speaking out.

"We’re here. We’re making our voices heard," Bracey Sherman says. "The question is: At what point are people going to actually listen to 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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