"It's like trying to breathe through a tiny, tiny straw," said Samantha Kamen. Not even a regular straw, but like one of those little red coffee stirrers.

This is how Kamen, marketing and communications manager for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, describes an asthma attack. It's a condition she's had since she was young. "It's a really scary feeling."

One of the top causes of an asthma attack? Air pollution. And it doesn't just affect asthma sufferers. More than half of Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution. And it's been associated with heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory problems.


Luckily, it's not a hopeless cause. There are lots of things people can do to help limit their exposure and reduce air pollution in their own communities. Here are 10 of them.

1. Know thy enemy with some daily recon.

AIRNow is a website by the EPA that gives daily air quality ratings for your area. Check it before going out the door. And if you're on the go, they have an app for iPhone and Android as well!

2. Know which way the wind is blowing.

Turns out weather forecasts don't just tell you rain or shine, they can also predict the wind. Check out your local weather station or weather.com for wind forecasts. If you know you're about get a face full of freeway exhaust, it might be time to close those windows.

3. Opt for the morning workout.

Your lungs might thank you for not hitting that snooze. One of the most common components of air pollution, ozone, tends to peak during warm, sunny afternoons. Ozone: good up high in the atmosphere, bad in your lungs. If you're planning on exercising, consider taking advantage of the morning's relatively cleaner air or do indoors activities instead.

4. Bundle your chores and trips together.

If air pollution is bad on any particular day, try to keep trips outside to a minimum by bundling chores and errands into one trip. Instead of going for a walk in the morning, then to the dry cleaners in the afternoon, then to the store to pick up milk in the evening, one trip out can limit your exposure. (And psst: See #7 below. Driving around less is great news for the air we breathe too.)

5. Keep those pollutants out of your home.

Why bring trouble home with you? Don't smoke indoors or burn trash or wood. Buy electric power and lawn tools when you can, rather than gas-powered ones. Be aware of things like scented candles. Those fragrances might smell nice, but they can sometimes dump pollutants into the air you breathe.

If you need a little extra help getting the toxins out of your home, you can purchase high-efficiency air filters. They catch a lot of the floating particles that make up smog and other forms of air pollution, purifying the air in your house.

6. Enjoy the great outdoors.

One way to get away from man-made pollution is to get out of the city altogether. Maybe instead of hitting up a city park for a picnic, find a nice spot in the countryside instead.

Need some ideas? Check out the National Park Services' Find a Park feature.

7. Ditch the car.

Cars are one of the biggest contributors to air pollution. Travel by carpool or public transportation, whenever possible. Fewer cars on the road mean fewer emissions, after all. If you live in a place where you have to drive, keep your engine up to snuff, tires filled, and don't idle (and ask your local schools not to idle the buses too).

8. Change those lightbulbs.

GIF from "Parks and Recreation."

Not only will you be able to see better at night, but replacing old lightbulbs and refrigerators with energy efficient ones means a lighter load at the power plant. If it's a coal or gas-fired plant, that means less emissions. Plus, it'll save you some money. Win-win.

9. Finally, encourage your city or state to join in as well.

Call your city's mayor or state representative and help push for policies that will cut down on air pollution. The World Health Organization notes that, unfortunately, many of the biggest sources of air pollution, like industrial factories or freeways, are really out of an individual person's hands. That's why it's important for cities and states to take action and encourage things like mass transit, clean energy, and better urban planning.

*Takes deep breath*

We can feel the air getting cleaner already!

This snuggly-looking fella loves breathing easier.

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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