As a transracial adoptee, I wish my white parents had talked to me about race
Photos courtesy of Sara Bennett

I've always known that I was adopted. My parents never tried to hide this from me. For one, they couldn't. I didn't look anything like them. Their smooth, pale, white skin contrasted with my darker complexion. Their double-lidded blue and green eyes were nothing like my brown monolidded ones. Strangers would often ask if I was sure that the tall, balding, white man was my father. When I eagerly nodded yes, a certain look would come over their face.

For as long as I've known that I was adopted, I've known that I was loved. My parents always made sure that I knew down to my very core that they cared for me. Even though I looked nothing like them, they were quick to tell me that it didn't matter—that they would love me the same if I were purple with white polka dots, or if I had red hair, or if I were taller. And when I was younger, I accepted their words as the absolute truth.


But, as I grew older, the narrative that my parents told me—that they didn't see my race—was challenged by those around me, who did see my race—and it mattered. Who asked me if I was bad at driving or assumed I was good at math. Who confused me with the only other Asian girl at my school of 1,500 students.

I had to reconcile what my parents had told me with what I had experienced outside of my home

I could no longer pretend that my race didn't matter. But what did it mean if my parents didn't see my race? Did that mean that there was a part of me that they couldn't see nor understand? I was trying to figure out how my race factored into my identity, and realizing that it was a much bigger part than my parents had led me to believe. Just because they saw the world through this colorblind lens did not mean that my own personal experiences reflected this.

In college, I gained the knowledge to truly understand my Asian American identity. I learned about microaggressions and stereotypes and the model minority myth. I met other people who had had similar experiences growing up. I learned to name the ways, both small and big, that my race impacted my day-to-day life. I felt validated realizing that there were others who understood who I was, race and all.

My race mattered. The only question was how much?

Now, as a 25-year-old, I wish my parents had talked to me about race. With the wisdom and grace that I gained in college, I understand why they didn't. But their lack of comprehension of the subject impacted the way that I saw myself and forced me to put together my own racial identity like pieces of a puzzle, with no help from them.

I wish that they had made more of an effort when I was younger to acknowledge my race. I wish that they would have told me that they saw me for who I was, race and all. I wish they could have helped prepare me for the way that my race was going to impact how I moved throughout life. I wish that they would have explicitly stated that they would love and support me through the complex journey of discovering what it meant to be an Asian American woman. But they didn't. And I was forced to learn all these things on my own.

I had a recent conversation with my mom about Black Lives Matter, which made me think that my parents just might be ready to hear my story. During our conversation, my mom seemed willing to listen to the ways in which Black people are discriminated against in this country and the way that the color of their skin impacts each and every interaction that they have. And while I know that my privilege is different, I am still affected by the way other people perceive me. And I just want my parents to understand that. I still have hope that they can learn.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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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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