Speaking in Johannesburg, South Africa, former President Barack Obama gave the world a much-needed pep talk.

The speech — part of the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture — centered on a theme of "creating conditions for bridging divides, working across ideological lines, and resisting oppression and inequality." Sounds like something we could all use, especially lately. Speaking for nearly an hour and a half, Obama avoided any direct critiques of Donald Trump and his policies. Indirectly, however ... that's a different story.

Photo by Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images.


1. "Maybe it would be useful to step back for a moment and try to get some perspective."

With so much happening in the world, it's good to look to our past for advice. Very few of the problems facing us today are actually new. We've seen what toxic leaders look like, what their rise to power entails, and how they've fallen. We've seen what happens when pseudo-democracies use propaganda on their own people. We've seen how the world slips into war. Knowing that, we can learn how to fight back.

"But in the strange and uncertain times that we are in — and they are strange, and they are uncertain, with each day's news cycles bringing more head spinning and disturbing headlines — I thought maybe it would be useful to step back for a moment and try to get some perspective, so I hope you'll indulge me," Obama said during the speech's opening.

Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images.

2. "You have to believe in facts. Without facts, there's no basis for cooperation."

This is an important point and one that probably doesn't get talked about nearly enough. If two (or more) groups with opposing goals want to work together, it's important they're at least able to agree on a common set of facts. During his speech, Obama used the example of climate change and opposition to the Paris Climate Agreement, calling on politicians to no longer "reject the very concept of objective truth."

"I can find common ground for those who oppose the Paris Accords," he said. "Because, for example, they might say, 'It's not going to work. We can't get everybody to cooperate.' They might say, 'It's more important for us to provide cheap energy for the poor, even if it means in the short term that there's more pollution.' At least I can have a debate with them about that, and I can show them why I think clean energy is the better path, especially for poor countries. That you can leap-frog old technologies. I can't find common ground if somebody says, 'Climate change is just not happening' when almost all the world's scientists tell us it is."

Photo by Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images.

3. "We have to stop pretending that countries that hold an election where the winner somehow magically gets 90% of the vote ... is a democracy."

Democracy is a fragile thing, and we can't take it for granted. Too often, even now, countries host sham elections that make it all but impossible for the government's chosen candidates to lose. This is a democracy in name only, and it's time we stopped accepting this version of rule.

"Democracy depends on strong institutions. It's about minority rights and checks and balances and freedom of speech and freedom of expression and a free press and the right to protest and petition the government and an independent judiciary, and everybody having to follow the law."

4. "I am not being alarmist. I'm simply stating the facts."

There is a lot happening in the world that we should be worried about, and there will be people who try to make you feel like you're delusional for noticing it. The truth is that if we want to actually address the problem, we have to first acknowledge that it exists. Putting our heads in the sand won't save us.

"Look around — strongman politics are ascendant, suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are (maintaining) the form of it, where those in powers seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning," he said, noting that the spread of these political actors is moving "at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago."

Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images.

5. "We now stand at a crossroads."

If there's hope of coming out of all this conflict unscathed, we absolutely have to reject cynicism in favor of hope. It's worked before, and it can work again.

"How should we respond? Should we see that wave of hope that we felt with [Mandela]'s release from prison? From the Berlin Wall coming down? Should we see that hope that we had as naive and misguided?"
"Let me tell you what I believe. I believe in Nelson Mandela's vision. I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King, and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multiracial democracy built on a premise that all people are created equal and are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuits of a common good. That's what I believe."

6. "If [people] can learn to hate, they can be taught to love."

This is an easy and important lesson to remember. It's also pretty hopeful. There are a lot of hateful people in this world, but they weren't always like that, and they don't always have to be like that moving forward.

"[Mandela] reminds us that no one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate. And if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart — love comes more naturally to the human heart. Let's remember that truth. ... Let's be joyful in our struggle to make that truth manifest here on earth. So that 100 years from now future generations will look back and say, 'They kept the march going — that's why we live under new banners of freedom.'"

Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images.

7. "Keep believing. Keep marching. Keep building. Keep raising your voice."

In uncertain times, it's easy to give in to apathy, to feel helpless. It's easy to shrug and tell yourself that you're just one person and ask what good one person can really do. Obama rejects this, especially now, quoting Mandela in defense of optimism.

"Every generation has the opportunity to remake the world. Mandela said 'Young people are capable when aroused of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom.' Now is a good time to be aroused. Now is a good time to be fired up."

Watch Obama's entire speech below.

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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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