A sustainable future and the health and wellness of teens are inextricably linked. Since the pandemic, there’s been an increase in high school students feeling persistently sad or hopeless and a shortage in pediatric mental health providers. In this episode, Cayah Leavy, a high school freshman, walks us through her experiences with mental health, balancing the stressors of her teenage life, and her advice to adults who want to connect with teens.
Jourdan: If you are curious about the emotions teenagers feel, this episode is for you. Last week, Jaia Harrison and Deahmi Mobley candidly shared the impacts of youth violence on their lives and on their peers’ lives.
This week, we continue our exploration of teen thoughts and experiences and dial in on the topic of mental health. Why? Because according to the World Health Organization, half of all mental health conditions start by age 14, but most cases go undetected and untreated. Insert this week’s guest.
Cayah: My name is Cayah Leavy. I go to Shady Side Academy. I’m a freshman and I’m in ninth grade. And the place I call home is Penn Hills.
Jourdan: She’s here to talk mental health awareness, why it should be a quality of life concern to adults and the opportunity she sees to change the future of how teens relate to one another. If you’ve been 14 before, listen to this episode and think about what you remember about your emotional world back then and what you wish you would have known. If you’re 14 years old now or a few years younger, think of your own mental health questions and what you need to learn more about. I’m Jourdan Hicks, your host. This is From the Source.
Where local teens voice their passions, concerns and prospects. Catch up with the kids these days.
Jourdan: Cayah grew up with a lot of love in her home. The most important people in her life are her mom…
Cayah: She’s an amazing, courageous, intelligent, beautiful woman.
Cayah: A diligent, hard-working, genuine person.
Jourdan: And brother…
Cayah: He’s one of the most sweetest, coolest, laid back, smart…
Jourdan: Oh, and her dog.
Cayah: His name is Jefe. El Jefe Butters Leavy. It means the boss in Spanish.
Jourdan: Cayah has anxiety. She says it started when she was younger.
Cayah: I used to get a lot of anxiety during tests. Anything like that. I was never bad at taking tests. I just got so nervous and overwhelmed, overthought everything. First time I ever became aware of mental health was in school, maybe like second or third grade. I had a wellness class where we talked about, you know, having a good mindset, not having negative thoughts. I think that in some ways they sort of messed up sort of an interpretation of what a good mental health looks like. We were kind of taught a good mental health is just someone who is positive and positive and positive. I think that there were some things that could have been talked about better and exampled better.
Jourdan: A bad breakup is what Cayah says introduced her to her own mental health. She’d never known just how sad she could feel and how tough she could be on herself for not feeling her best.
Cayah: I think it was and is really hard for me to be OK with how things ended and thinking about how things were my fault. How things were his fault. And I think it just, it makes me blame myself. It makes me feel bad when I think about him, when I think about it, when I think about how much time I wasted, and how much time I continue to waste thinking about it and blaming myself about it now. And it’s just so hard not to do that. It’s really, really hard to do that. And it just, it’s just something that I think about, like all the time.
Jourdan: Dating, friendships, school, sports. Sometimes it just all stacks up for Cayah. Like during a recent soccer game, she was playing goalie and she just wasn’t feeling it.
Cayah: I felt really tired. Just all of a sudden. And I had to fake it till I made it. And I ended up doing really well. But I was not able to enjoy the win. I didn’t feel like it was really worth it and it wasn’t even anyone’s fault. It wasn’t my teammates fault. It wasn’t my coach’s fault. Nobody could have done anything to make me feel any different. I just, I’m burnt out. I’m very tired and I just, I fight so much sometimes, I fight too much. And that burns me out. And I just, it’s not even that I feel like hopeless if things don’t get better. So when I get tired, I get in, like, mood of, like, I just really don’t care. And then sometimes I become like, great. And I don’t like being rude because taking things out on people, being rude to people who don’t deserve it, it’s a messed up thing to do. It’s not a nice thing to do. And it’s just important for me to get to talk about, you know, my anxiety and sometimes how I feel very depressed and I can go months without feeling very sad, but then I can go a year with feeling very sad and nothing helps.
Jourdan: So what do you feel like is the truth of how your generation interacts with mental health or like deals with it upfront?
Cayah: I think my generation goes into mental health and they take it very seriously. They don’t take it lightly. We definitely like to talk about it and we want to have conversations and discussions about why we’re feeling the way we are, why we have the right and why we should be having these conversations. Because so many people feel so alone. They may not have the resources, the tools around them, the community around them to feel. They don’t feel like they have anyone, you know. They don’t feel like they have their parents or their parents don’t understand them. And they don’t feel like they have their friends, their friends are in their own world. Who else do you turn to? And that’s why so many people feel so alone, is because sometimes they truly do not have anyone that is really there for them.
Jourdan: And so how can teens among themselves de-escalate these feelings of being alone for each other?
Cayah: I think we can just be nicer. We can be more welcoming. We can just not be so exclusive. I think it’s because some people are afraid to let people in. And I think it’s also because those people aren’t happy in their lives sometimes. So they want to make everyone else’s lives a little less happier.
Jourdan: You really opened my mind just now. Because I don’t even think of that being a possibility what you shared before, which is that maybe you’re just closed off cause you don’t want to feel vulnerable meeting new people.
Jourdan: So what if you have a whole bunch of people who feel vulnerable and don’t want to be vulnerable?
Jourdan: Open up to people. So everybody’s walking around like a closed little cowrie shell.
Cayah: A closed book. Yes.
Cayah: And it’s not easy to be an open book at all. It’s quite scary to be pretty vulnerable. You’re opening yourself up.
Cayah [performing for Alumni Theater Company]: When I see myself, I see a beautiful young Black performer. I also see someone who doesn’t know what to think or do with herself. Some may say, I’m just a Black girl. I don’t feel pain. But in reality, pain is all I felt for years.
Jourdan: From the Source met Cayah through the artistic director of Alumni Theater Company or ATC, a performing arts training program for Black students in sixth through 12th grade. These young artists have strong opinions and create bold theatrical work for the stage, and it’s where the real Cayah comes to life.
Cayah: We make the most amazing work. You write, you act. You speak what you want to say without people judging you.
Cayah: She puts on a smile every day. But it’s not real. She can’t feel pain, right? But it’s real.
It’s topics on things that we’re proud to present. We’re proud to talk about. And we want to talk about and stuff that we need to talk about.
Jourdan: What part of the art that you’re doing at ATC is your favorite?
Cayah: You know, Jourdan, I really love writing a lot.
Cayah [performing for Alumni Theater Company]: She self-medicated with writing. It helped her out of a deep and crippling depression that she couldn’t even get out of herself.
Cayah: Everything that I write means something to me. It has purpose, and every time I write, I want to have a purpose, and what I’m saying and I want it to be meaningful. When I’m writing, sometimes I’m not even thinking. I’m just writing. Which makes it so much more like fun because I can’t get out of my head sometimes. So when I’m out of my head and I’m just writing whatever I need to. It’s like a breather.
Cayah [performing for Alumni Theater Company]: Dancing, singing, writing, laughing. And for once, in a very long time, she was smiling. She got that energetic, happy and proud feeling again. That excitement of performing and being able to get her words across. And most importantly, starting a new chapter on how she isn’t just a Black girl. She’s much more than that. She feels pain, but she can also express herself in ways that many people can’t. She’s a young artist who can’t wait to pursue her career. And she deserves a lot. Kindness, respect, happiness. I know what I want. Don’t think for a second I don’t. I was happy and not because I was in a temporary happiness phase, but because I finally found that one desire and I’m never going to forget it or lose it again.
Cayah: I guess I’ve realized over the years I kind of write not only for me but for other people. So sometimes I write about things that maybe other people are thinking, something that I haven’t thought about yet. That’s kind of something I’ve been testing out. I’m cool, actually. To write about something you don’t even know about, something you haven’t experienced. Because when you’re performing it, you’re kind of on a journey of learning it with other people.
Cayah: You’re learning and they’re learning, too. And I think that’s just what makes writing. Being a writer just makes it worth doing it all.
Jourdan: It goes back to the power of art.
Jourdan: And how you go through this journey of having a thought, having a feeling and following it. Writing it down in your case. And then the magic of being able to bring those words to life in some way.
Jourdan: And then finding out that someone else outside of it feels the exact same way or it connects with them in some way.
Cayah: Yes, I think it’s just such a good feeling to have when you know that you’re not alone, even if it’s in a negative thing, you’re going through it with somebody else. You’re not going through it alone. And I don’t want to speak on everyone, but I feel like we all have this connection some way or how to each other of how we feel and how we don’t know how we feel. And then we don’t know who to talk to, and then we don’t know if we even should talk to someone because it’s a burden. Then it just compiles and it piles and piles on and on. And I think it is so important for us to be able to talk about it because piling things inside, it seems like such a good thing to do at the time where you’re hurting, but it just isn’t at all. And it just really, from personal experience, it just hurts you so much more, like it really does. And I think we just need, we need somebody to listen to us and actually hear what we’re saying and not twist it and not change it to what it’s something else and not pretend like they know what we’re saying. We just need someone to hear us.
Jourdan: Have you spoken with a therapist or a counselor before?
Cayah: Yeah, I have.
Jourdan: In school or outside of school?
I have in school and outside of school. Yeah, the one outside of school wasn’t great, so I didn’t go back. Ones in school were not great either. I think for so long I’ve had such a vendetta against therapists and counselors because I don’t trust them. I’ve had a guard up for a long time because I go into things sometimes not trusting people because I don’t trust, what you’re going to do with with what I say, you’re going to use against me. They’re going to talk about it, but you can act like it’s crazy. It’s just that sort of thing.
Cayah: Do you talk to your parents that say conversations about mental health?
Cayah: I do. I think I’m able to say things to my parents and they understand. Do they put words in my mouth sometimes? Do they think they know how I feel sometimes? Sure. And is it always right? It’s almost 95% of the time wrong, which is OK. They care. That’s important to me. I think they just don’t overreact about it. They don’t act like this is so crazy. They don’t get flustered by what I’m saying, you know? They don’t make me feel like what I’m saying is crazy. I think that’s what makes me feel OK.
Jourdan: What struck me about Cayah was her confidence and her emotional aptitude at 14. I definitely did not have the awareness to perceive how my relationships, school, my parents, my thoughts were all impacting me or that I should manage my response to my thoughts and my feelings.
Jourdan: Let’s talk about while all this is going on. All these: I’m afraid to open up. I don’t want to feel vulnerable. I want to look a certain way. I feel alone. I feel lonely. The adults around aren’t really prepared for my questions. I don’t think they’re prepared for my questions. I may feel unprepared, or that I know enough to talk about how I feel, what I’m thinking, because I don’t want to scare anybody. What do you feel like is special about your generation in trying to overcome that?
Cayah: I think we not only have a lot of knowledge, but we have a lot of confidence and then we have a lot of sensitivity and sympathy for other people around us. What also makes us special is the fact that we care about so many more things that other generations seem to brush off, they seem to not really care about, and we’re bringing those things back so that they get the recognition that they deserve, the conversations they deserve.
Jourdan: Because everybody deserves to have this conversation no matter what they feel about themselves or what they feel people feel about them.
Jourdan: As a Gen Z’er, what is your wish for other generations that have either come before you or after you because people are still being born?
Cayah: Yeah. Crazy.
Cayah: You were born in 2022?
Jourdan: They’re still doing that?
Jourdan: What is a wish that you have for future generations or past generations for how they embrace mental health awareness and brain health and mental health?
Cayah: I think for the generations behind me they need to, they need to ask questions. They need to acknowledge the fact that mental health is big now. People talk about it, people care about it and people will care if you don’t care. They’re supposed to be there for people. We’re supposed to be kind. And we are supposed to care. We’re supposed to care about our planet, and we’re supposed to care about things and people that are here.
Jourdan: So for generations, coming after Gen Z, you want them to know that they should talk about their brain health, their thoughts, their emotions, their fears.
Cayah: They should continue to do that.
Jourdan: They should continue to do that.
Cayah: And the younger generations before us. They need to care more they need to …
Jourdan: That’s your wish, for them to care more. How does it impact them?
Cayah: I think it affects you because you won’t be able to understand a lot of the things that’ll be big and that will be talked about a lot. I think you will understand why things happen with health the way they do for teens because you didn’t care enough to learn about it. And I understand it’s hard to care about things you don’t want to learn about, but you should want to care about this. You should learn about this because it’s pretty important and it’s going to shape and affect the way our world revolves.
Jourdan: Season four of From the Source Podcast is produced, reported and hosted by me, Jourdan Hicks, and edited by Halle Stockton. Liz Reid of Jeweltone Productions produced and mixed this episode.
We continue to interview young people for this podcast season as we speak. If you’re curious to learn how you can share your story with us or nominate a young person ages 13 to 18 to appear on an episode of From The Source, you can get in touch by sending me an email at Jourdan@PublicSource.org.
PublicSource is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh. You can find all of our reporting and storytelling at PublicSource.org. I’m Jourdan Hicks. Stay safe. Be well.
Do you feel more informed?
Help us inform people in the Pittsburgh region with more stories like this — support our nonprofit newsroom with a donation.