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Illustration of Harper and Manon wearing flower crowns. Illustration by Mo Gilbert, ©2023 Pivotal Ventures

All illustrations by Mo Gilbert

We Asked, They Answered: Two Young People Share How Safe Spaces Support their Mental Health

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Even in a deeply divided country, 90 percent of Americans agree that the United States is in the throes of a mental health crisis. Young people, especially young people of color and LGBTQ+ youth, face some of the highest barriers to accessing mental health care and services. 

Pivotal Ventures works with a range of partners to support the social, emotional, and psychological wellbeing of young people in the U.S. with solutions that meet their unique needs. Our partners understand that when it comes to promoting young people’s wellbeing, it’s essential to center the voices of young people themselves. Peer Health Exchange, for example, describes itself as “creating healthier communities by, with, and for young people”—an approach that has yielded solutions like selfsea, a digital safe space that connects young people to identity-affirming mental health resources, support, and community. 

Kelsey Noonan (she/her), who leads Pivotal Ventures’ adolescent mental health work, recently touched base with two youth activists from the selfsea community: Harper Cooper (she/they) and Manon Guijarro (she/her). Harper, 19, is a student at Xavier University in Louisiana, and Manon, 24, is a student at California State University, Northridge. Harper and Manon spoke with Kelsey about their experiences with mental health and wellbeing and their advice for others who want to support young people on their journeys. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Illustration of flowers put in a rainbow backpack in school hallway. Illustration by Mo Gilbert, ©2023 Pivotal Ventures

Kelsey: How did you become involved with Peer Health Exchange?

Harper: I reached out to Peer Health Exchange after I learned about them on Instagram. They gave me the opportunity to film a few videos about my struggles with mental health as a Black woman in the LGBTQ+ community. It was very freeing because mental health isn’t really talked about in minority communities, and I just wanted to address that sometimes it’s okay not to be okay.

Manon: A family friend sent me a link to Peer Health Exchange, and I started filming videos about my experiences during my second year of college. That helped me realize that I really have a passion for improving sex education, which catapulted my education and what I want to do. Making an impact was always my dream, and I feel like I can help youth in this way.

Kelsey: What was it like navigating your mental health and wellbeing when you were growing up? Did you have the resources you needed?

Harper: It was hard. Starting from age seven or eight, I felt like it was my responsibility to do everything right. I never got into trouble: I was an honors student and a teacher’s pet. I did sports, and I had a job. Since I was doing so well, my parents didn’t dedicate a lot of attention to me, even though I needed it. In public, I used humor as a coping mechanism so I wouldn’t have to think about how I was sad, but as soon as I was alone, I was just surrounded by all these complex emotions.

Manon: I did not have the resources I needed. I went to a Catholic school, and I felt so alone and judged. One of my first memories is sitting in the pews as a kindergartner and hearing the priest say anti-gay things. I knew at that time that I was into both [girls and boys], so it was such a big memory for me. Thankfully my parents have always been very supportive, but I didn’t come out to them until I was 22 because I was so scared of the social stigma. I didn’t get the mental health resources I needed until I started working with Peer Health Exchange.

Illustration of a child receiving a bad grade in school. Illustration by Mo Gilbert, ©2023 Pivotal Ventures

Illustration of child sitting in the rain. Illustration by Mo Gilbert, ©2023 Pivotal Ventures

Kelsey: If you could go back and create exactly what your younger self needed, what would that be?

Harper: I would give myself comfort and allow myself to be a child, you know? I feel like one thing I didn’t get was the acknowledgement that I was a little girl, and a human being. I don't have to do everything right. I'm allowed to make mistakes. I would tell myself that it’s going to be okay.

Manon: I wish I had had someone to talk to about everything I was experiencing. I wanted to hear them tell me that everything would be okay, and that other people were going through the same things I was.

Kelsey: One thing that brought Pivotal to selfsea is our interest in supporting organizations that create safe spaces for young people—both physically and emotionally. What makes a space feel safe to you? Why are safe spaces like this so important for you and other young people you know?

Harper: A safe space to me is where people are held accountable for what they say and do. But I also think that safe spaces are non-judgmental and reassuring. So many people are afraid that people will judge them, or that they won’t be validated or understood, so humans need that reassurance and understanding from others.

Manon: selfsea made me feel safe because everybody was so open and positive, and it was incredibly diverse. I felt like you could be you. You could be different. That's what I enjoyed. When you’re out in public, you always feel like somebody’s judging you. But when you have a space where people are comfortable being themselves and they support one other, you feel free.

"I wish I had had someone to talk to about everything I was experiencing."

Manon Guijarro
Kelsey: We’re seeing young people advocate for mental health like never before—especially in response to increased hostility toward LGBTQ+ youth and young people of color—and it’s incredibly powerful. Why do you think your generation is speaking up about this, and how did you become a leader in this area?

Harper: My generation has had to contain ourselves so other people can’t or won’t judge us, but we’re tired of that. We know that life is too short to hide who you think you are and who you want to become. If there’s anything we can do to push towards a just and unified society, we’re willing to take those steps.

Manon: Whenever I see my baby cousins or other kids, I just want them to have the safe spaces that I didn’t have. I want everybody to be happy and to be able to follow their passions in life. I hope that one day things are going to get better, and I feel like our generation is helping create that change.

Illustration of face on phone screen talking about a bad day, with positive messages. Illustration by Mo Gilbert, ©2023 Pivotal Ventures

Kelsey: What would you ask older generations to do to better support the leadership of your generation in this space?

Harper: I would tell them to leave the 1950s, 60s, and 70s behind. How they grew up is how they grew up, but I’m going to be the person I want to be, and they can either get with the times and support us or get left behind.

Manon: I would ask them to start advocating not just for future generations, but current generations like mine. I think older generations think we’re too sensitive and that we haven’t struggled as much as they did, but we have a lot of struggles, and they might be worse because of social media.

Illustration of girl walking across rainbow stepping stones. Illustration by Mo Gilbert, ©2023 Pivotal Ventures

Kelsey: What advice would you give to someone who’s navigating their own mental health journey and who may be struggling to find safe spaces?

Harper: I’ve learned that the boundaries you set with other people are the boundaries you set with yourself. Live your truth, show yourself love, and don’t wait for other people to love and accept you. Recognize that what you've been through is not who you are.  

Manon: I would tell my friends that when it's hard to find safe spaces, find a safe place within yourself. Learn to be comfortable being alone and learn to love yourself completely so you can be okay with just being you. I also think it’s helpful hearing other people share their stories, because then it reminds you that you're not alone and that nothing is wrong with you.

"We know that life is too short to hide who you think you are and who you want to become."

Harper Cooper
Kelsey: In times like these, finding support is important, but finding joy is, too. Where and how do you find joy, and how can we help young people find more of it?

Harper: I find joy at home, but I’ve also found it in women's spaces or spaces that are made up of people like me or people who want to learn more about me. I’m also finding it as I learn how to be at peace with myself. We can help young people find joy by creating safe spaces where they feel safe to share their emotions and co-exist with one another, no matter their gender. For example, I think it’s important that Black men, especially Black men in the LGBTQ community, be given the same grace, safety, and joy that I find in those spaces.

Manon: I’ve found joy in painting, but I also find joy in knowing that I’m making a change in little ways, through what I’m studying and the work that I do to talk about mental health. I think we can help more youth find joy by helping them find their passions.

Illustration of Harper and Manon wearing animating flower crowns. Illustration by Mo Gilbert, ©2023 Pivotal Ventures

Kelsey: We are so grateful to you for sharing your story with us. Why did you feel it was important to share your story in this way, with Pivotal Ventures?

Harper: My story deserves to be told, and if I'm given the opportunity to share it on a large platform, I should. I wanted to speak out as a Black woman in the LGBTQ+ community, because I feel like we don’t have a lot of these conversations among Black youth. And I want to remind people that they can heal.

Manon: I thought, why not? I like talking about this, and if I don't do it, somebody else might or they might not. I want people to know that there are things to look forward to, even when you’re struggling.

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