Pope Francis has become something of a pop culture icon, with over 5 million Instagram followers and a blockbuster documentary set for release this spring. It's not hard to see why.

In the homily of his Palm Sunday Mass, Pope Francis took the opportunity to speak to young people, many of whom were gathered to celebrate the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day.

Palm Sunday at the Vatican. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images.


Perhaps coincidentally — but probably not — the pope’s words also came a day after the March for Our Lives, a series of worldwide, youth-led demonstrations protesting gun violence. It’s estimated that more than 800,000 people attended the march in Washington, D.C., alone.

Though Pope Francis didn’t mention the March for Our Lives specifically, he might as well have. His message was perfectly timed to encourage the thousands of youth who are advocating for better gun legislation and being met with loud resistance from the NRA and others.

EN:The Church wants to listen to all young people, no one excluded, because we need to better understand what God and history are asking of us. PT: A Igreja quer escutar todos os jovens, nenhum excluído, porque temos necessidade de entender melhor aquilo que Deus e a história nos estão pedindo. ES: La Iglesia desea escuchar a todos los jóvenes, sin excepciones, porque necesitamos comprender mejor lo que Dios y la historia nos están pidiendo. IT: La Chiesa vuole ascoltare tutti i giovani, nessuno escluso, perché abbiamo bisogno di capire meglio quello che Dio e la storia ci stanno chiedendo. FR: L'Église veut écouter tous les jeunes, personne n'est exclu, parce que nous avons besoin de mieux comprendre ce que Dieu et l'histoire sont en train de nous demander. DE: Die Kirche will alle Jugendliche hören, niemand ausgeschlossen, weil wir besser verstehen müssen, was Gott und die Geschichte von uns verlangen. #synod2018, #jovens, #youngpeople, #jovenes

A post shared by Pope Francis (@franciscus) on

First, the pope admonished adults to stop silencing young people.

Pope Francis basically told the grown-ups of the world to back off the young folks, but he did so in his gentle, indirect, pontiff-like way:

“The temptation to silence young people has always existed. There are many ways to silence young people and make them invisible. Many ways to anesthetize them, to make them keep quiet, ask nothing, question nothing. There are many ways to sedate them, to keep them from getting involved, to make their dreams flat and dreary, petty and plaintive.”

I don’t know about you, but what I heard there was, “Hey adults [*cough* NRA]. Knock it off.”

Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images.

Indeed, the number of adults I’ve seen in comments berating our young protesters is appalling. These kids are being told they aren’t old enough to know what they’re talking about despite having been through the trauma of a mass shooting and/or the daily fear of gun violence in their communities. They’re being called puppets, pawns, and shills — as if they couldn't possibly have something to say about the gun violence that directly affects them.

The NRA posted a recruitment video on their Facebook page the day of the march, with the caption, “Today’s protests aren’t spontaneous. Gun-hating billionaires and Hollywood elites are manipulating and exploiting children as part of their plan to DESTROY the Second Amendment and strip us of our right to defend ourselves and our loved ones.”

Ugh, seriously. Knock it off.

Pope Francis also spoke directly to young people, encouraging them “not to keep quiet.”

The pope then turned his attention to young activists, telling them basically to keep on using their voices to fight for change, even when the grown-ups around them are corrupt, grumpy, and silent:

“Dear young people, you have it in you to shout. It is up to you not to keep quiet. Even if others keep quiet, if we older people and leaders, some corrupt, keep quiet, if the whole world keeps quiet and loses its joy, I ask you: Will you cry out?”

The young people in the crowd shouted out, “Yes!”

I may have stood up in my living room and shouted, “Yes!” too. And I’m 43 years old and not even Catholic.

Pope Francis greets the crowd after Palm Sunday Mass in the Vatican. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images.

I love that the 81-year-old pope, who has the ear of more than a billion Catholics around the world, is uplifting the voices of youth. So often, young people get a bad rap in our society, but I have been blown away by these young activists. Watching the television coverage of the March for Our Lives, I was moved to tears by their eloquence, conviction, maturity, and inclusion. These kids have restored so much of my faith in humanity, and Pope Francis using his substantial pulpit to urge them on just warms my heart.

Two Marjory Stoneman Douglas students were at the Mass in the Vatican, holding gun violence protest signs.

Gabriella Zuniga and Valentina Zuniga are students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students were shot and killed on Feb. 14, 2018. They were in attendance at the mass in the Vatican on March 25, along with their parents, holding signs that read "We are #MSDSTRONG," "Protect Our Children Not Our Guns," and "#NeverAgain."

Pope Francis is an incredibly aware guy. He may not have seen the Zunigas and their signs in the crowd at Palm Sunday Mass, but there's no doubt that he saw the masses of youth leading the March for Our Lives.

And his message to them on Palm Sunday was heard loud and clear: Keep on shouting, kids, no matter how the grown-ups try to silence you.

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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