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Entries from NPR's Student Podcast Challenge explore mental health

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

This year, amid a troubling decline in mental health among young people, NPR's Student Podcast Challenge asked students to submit their stories about the issue. Hundreds of middle and high schoolers responded. Today, we're bringing you some of the finalists in our first-ever prize for podcasts about mental health. Here's NPR's Lauren Migaki

LAUREN MIGAKI, BYLINE: There are some things about being a student that never changed, whether it's doodling during a boring lesson or setting fires with the Bunsen burners. There's always a way to zone out in the classroom. But today's young folks are fending off distractions from a technology that throws a scary amount of information and disruptions at them constantly.

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JESUS LEDEZMA HERNANDEZ: How can I get my attention to the board in class? And I struggle talking to others in person during that time period.

MIGAKI: That's Jesus Ledezma Hernandez, a student at Herbert Hoover High School in San Diego. He says he was a gifted student, but during the pandemic, he found himself unable to resist the pull of endless online scrolling.

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HERNANDEZ: I knew the factors, the trade-off of using my phone in class, but I just dug myself a hole. And I now wanted to get out of it.

HOANG LONG DANG: Hey. I'm your co-host, Hoang, and I've gone through something similar myself in my freshman year, but we both aren't looking for sympathy. Instead, we are going to be answering how technology distracts many teenagers like us and what teens can do to be more present today.

MIGAKI: In their podcast, Jesus and Hoang Long Dang dig themselves out of the doom scroll hole.

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DANG: But first, a bit about the brain.

MIGAKI: They explore the science behind brain development...

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DANG: Focus on your breathing for a bit.

MIGAKI: ...And offer ways to focus on the present with journaling and mindfulness.

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HERNANDEZ: To notice the small things and process them.

MIGAKI: For Jesus, logging offline allowed him to focus - literally - on his passion for photography.

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HERNANDEZ: It seemed that I was stuck before in the rabbit hole of consumption. But with mindfulness, I got out of it. It should get you out, too.

MIGAKI: And while Jesus discovered a passion...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking in non-English language).

GRACE GO: No, I'm not hungry.

MIGAKI: ...Grace Go created a podcast about something she once loved that became a source of discomfort.

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GO: Ham, sausage, Spam, a packet of instant noodles, all cooked in a spicy broth topped with American cheese and chopped scallions. Budae jjigae is a popular South Korean dish created in the '50s in the midst of the war.

MIGAKI: Grace, who attends Mercer Island High School in Washington State, talks about the ways that food can be an expression of love for many immigrant parents, but it can also be problematic.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Grace, I think you gained weight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking in non-English language).

GO: These were real comments made to me by my relatives almost weekly. And over time, what they said had a significant impact on the state of my mental health and my relationship with my self image. For years, I didn't eat properly. Then finally, in November of 2021, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder.

MIGAKI: Of course, this doesn't just happen in immigrant families, but Grace points out that some cultures are reluctant to seek mental health treatment, and even if they do, people of color are less likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder.

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GO: But with the proper treatment, right resources and a stomach full of budae jjigae, now I can say that as long as I know I'm healthy, how I look is such asmall fraction of who I am and what I'm worth.

MIGAKI: She says she made this podcast for other students who are struggling.

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GO: So that one day, others who have experienced a similar journey to mine will be able to enjoy their discomfort food and find comfort within it.

MIGAKI: Many of our mental health entries found comfort in the arts.

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ANGELICA SCHMIDT: Did you know about the link between mental health and creativity?

ABIGAIL BRANDWEIN: I didn't.

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MIGAKI: Angelica Schmidt and Abigail Brandwein, students at Irvington Middle School in New York, used their podcast to explore the ways that mental health shows up in art work.

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BRANDWEIN: I've heard about the artist of "The Scream," Edvard Munch. Apparently, he used his artwork to express his inner struggles with anxiety, depression and other conditions. The background of "The Scream" was even inspired by a sunset he saw while on a walk trembling with anxiety.

MIGAKI: They interview high school art teacher Diana Schwartz about her students' work.

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DIANA SCHWARTZ: If they're struggling with something, they express it in their artwork. It helps them solve things.

BRANDWEIN: It gives them an outlet.

SCHWARTZ: Yeah, exactly.

MIGAKI: Texas high schooler Cameron Wallace also grew up loving art.

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CAMERON WALLACE: When I started high school, I left my sketchbooks and my brushes behind.

MIGAKI: It wasn't until his senior year at Cypress Woods High School that something changed.

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WALLACE: The past few months, I have made the 30-minute drive into Houston for the sole purpose of art. I visited the Lawndale Art Center, the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston...

MIGAKI: Cameron says, now that he's a bit older, experienced a little more pain, he was drawn back to art. He describes seeing a piece titled "The Secret Society Of Grief" by artist Royal Sumikat.

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WALLACE: The crowd congregated outside to view her massive piece that stretched across the wall of the building. Royal's illustration was of four figures carrying varying sizes of crystals. One figure in the middle of the scene has toppled over onto their side as they bear the weight of an enormous crystal. These crystals, as Royal explains, represent the love someone has for a person. These crystals, so full of love, burn the figures, as they have lost the person they have loved so much.

MIGAKI: Cameron attended the Artists Talk, where others in the audience shared their stories of loss, and a community formed.

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WALLACE: After Royal closed, I found myself retreating back to a previous exhibition, appropriately labeled A Good Cry. And I cried.

MIGAKI: It gave him a chance to mourn his own loss, the death of his uncle.

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WALLACE: These emotions that I avoided for weeks ended up right in front of my eyes. I finally confronted this grief and began my process of accepting it instead of fighting. Through art, I found a part of myself displayed by someone else. Without Royal's installation, I truly believe that my pain would persist greater and I wouldn't have begun to find resolve in my grief.

MIGAKI: Cameron ends with a lesson for all of us.

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WALLACE: To fight grief is to delay the process of healing. To heal is to express what you have lost. To express what you have lost is to create art.

MIGAKI: Lauren Migaki, NPR News.

DETROW: Next week, we'll announce the winner of our mental health podcast. And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.