Founded by Melinda French Gates, Pivotal Ventures accelerates social progress in the United States by removing barriers that hold people back.

A close-up of a child's face in front of an out-of-focus yellow background.

Photo courtesy of Sound it Out

Pivotal Ventures and the Ad Council Launch “Sound It Out” to Support Young People’s Emotional Well-Being

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Picture a father and his middle-school-age son sitting around the breakfast table, getting ready for the day. The son, visibly upset, slowly stirs a spoon around his cereal bowl, lost in thought.

“Hey boss, you ok?” the concerned father asks. “Yeah, I’m good,” the son responds. “You don’t look ok,” the father says, trying again to get his son to open up.

“I said I’m fine,” the son says sharply, grabbing his headphones and storming away from the table.

This scene opens a new music video featuring artist and rapper KAMAUU—and while it may be an unusual situation to see in a music video, it’s a familiar one in homes across the country.

Thumbnail for a video featuring a young black boy listening to red haedphones.

Howie and the Howl Music Video (feat. KAMAUU) l Middle School Mental Health l Ad Council

In fact, the song and video were inspired by a real conversation between KAMAUU and a 14-year-old named Howie, who talked about navigating challenges like loneliness and how hard it can be to talk about his feelings.

KAMAUU’S song, “Howie and the Howl,” is being released today as part of the launch of the “Sound It Out” campaign, a new effort from Pivotal Ventures and the Ad Council to make conversations about emotional well-being a little easier.

Middle schoolers and mental health

When it comes to talking about their emotional state, young people often simply say they’re doing “fine” or “good,” even when they’re in distress. And while well-meaning caregivers—whether parents, grandparents, relatives, or mentors—may want to probe deeper, many don’t know what to ask or how. Behind that word “fine,” though, can be intense feelings and worrisome problems.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, half of all lifetime mental health challenges begin by the age of 14. Roughly one in six young people experience a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, and the suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds nearly tripled between 2007 and 2017 to become the second leading cause of death in that age group. COVID-19 has exacerbated this mental health crisis, increasing levels of stress, anxiety, and depression for children and adolescents across the country.

All these challenges are made worse by the fact that the healthcare system makes it hard for young people of color to get the support they need. Barriers to accessing quality care include the stigma around seeking it and the cost of getting it, especially for families without health insurance. Another problem is that few programs and services are developed with the lived experiences of people of color in mind.

For example, in another conversation facilitated by Sound It Out, the artist Empress Of talked to 14-year-old Marian about the tension she feels trying to fit in both at home and at school as the daughter of an immigrant. While millions of children around the country are grappling with the same situation, it can be difficult for them to find culturally competent care to address it.

Pivotal Ventures, as part of our mission to advance social progress, promotes efforts to equip more young people with the emotional support they need to thrive.

This is where Sound It Out comes in. Pivotal has partnered with the Ad Council, an expert advisory council, and a network of nonprofits to create a campaign specifically designed to help young people and their caregivers in Black and Latinx communities have conversations about mental health. To do so, we’re tapping into the power of music.

When you can’t find the language, find the lyrics

While many middle schoolers don’t verbalize their emotions to their caregivers, they do often listen to music—which means they’re hearing artists express feelings from joy to sorrow to frustration through song.

Sound It Out aims to use music as an entryway for deeper discussions between young people and their caregivers. For example, parents and their kids can go to the Sound It Out website,, and listen to songs and conversations about emotional well-being from participating artists including KAMAUU, Empress Of, Lauren Jauregui, and Tobe Nwigwe. There, they can click on the lyrics and read notes from the artists about what they were thinking as they developed the songs.

Additionally, caregivers can find conversation guides on the website to help them talk to the young people in their lives about difficult issues, from anxiety to racism to friendships. They can access expert-recommended resources for further support. And they can also check out the songs and videos on streaming services like Spotify and Sound It Out’s social media channels, respectively.

Empress Of, during her conversation with Marian, said, “Music has always been a way for me to communicate with myself and figure out what’s going on with me.” Through Sound It Out, we hope caregivers can similarly leverage music to help more young people do the same.

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