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3 insights from the 2023 MHA Conference that gave me hope

by Crystal Widado, 2022-2023 MHA Young Leaders Council member

As someone who’s been in the mental health advocacy space for the past six years, I’ve learned that having hope that things can become better is a lifelong marathon. With 2.5 million youth reporting severe depression and climbing suicide rates, things don’t seem good for the future of youth. Hope is difficult to sustain, but is arguably one of the most important tools for building a long-lasting movement for change.

In chronological order, here are impactful moments from the 2023 Mental Health America Conference that brought me hope for the future of mental health advocacy and leadership.

#1: Meals With The Young Leaders Council From the very first night we shared Ethiopian food to the final pizza dinner, each meal shared with old and new friends from the Mental Health America Young Leaders Council brought so much meaning and joy into this work. While a lot of professional advice was shared during these meals, I found this personal connection to be the most meaningful. Conversations about family and collective organizing while buying smoothies with fellow council members showed the amount of shared wisdom between people from diverse backgrounds. A true grandmaster of cultivating spaces for these types of connections is Anthony Sartori (YLC ‘22),

who I shared breakfast with on the first morning of the conference. I’ll never forget Sartori asking me what I’d like “my story” to be as we chatted about our shared hopes and anxieties about the nonprofit space. As one of the youngest members of the council and a young person in the field, it is easy to become intimidated by the truly brilliant work of my peers. Meals both inside and outside of the conference allowed me to humanize the people around me. I found “realness” (otherwise known as authenticity) in those around me and myself.

#2: Carmela Wallace, Mahmoud Kedhr, And The Peer Support Breakout Mahmoud Kedhr’s interview with Carmela Wallace was a masterpiece of great interviewing and a destigmatized conversation about grief and substances. Amidst the undying pride and love Wallace shared for her late son, JuiceWRLD, she showed the conference her dedication to continuing her son’s legacy in Live Free 999. Kedhr, a former Young Leaders Council member and current Mental Health America Board member, read out a lyric from JuiceWRLD’s song “Burn” about never being forgiven if narcotics ever killed him. I teared up when Wallace immediately said that she forgives her late son, who passed away in 2019.

In a similar vein, the breakout “Supporting Youth Substance Use and Addiction Recovery from a Peer Perspective,” led by Kelly Davis, Mental Health America’s vice president of peer and youth advocacy, and Young Leaders Council member Savannah Frye also revealed much-needed hope and resilience. Aside from sharing their living experience (which often is missed in these conversations), their destigmatizing attitudes and a deep disdain for criminalizing/punitive solutions were so refreshing to hear.

So much of the conversation around substances often revolves around individual shame, fear, and blame towards young people struggling with addiction, but these two moments in the conference illuminated a future of noncarceral solutions and support for youth.

#3: YLC Young Leaders Panel I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the amount of joy and knowledge gained from being a part of this year’s Young Leaders Council young leaders panel. While others might have highlighted the fruitful live conversation, I found the real magic in the preparatory meeting the night before. As we gathered together to combine our interests in what we wanted to talk about, there was such a shared excitement for the platform we were about to have.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, Kelly Davis did an amazing job moderating the conversation. But Davis didn’t just moderate – she pushed the conversation forward by asking questions that actively challenged our current approaches to the youth mental health crisis. All five of us brought such powerful and insightful remarks that left the room with hope for what we’re all fighting for.

If you missed this year’s conference, don’t miss the 2024 Annual Conference. Find more conference recaps here. Crystal Widado is a member of the 2022-2023 Mental Health America Young Leaders Council. Learn more about the Young Leaders Council.

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