Promoting Positive Conversations with Young Adults

By Kara James, Planned Parenthood Los Angeles Nurse Practitioner

As we enter the holiday season and 2022 draws to a close, we find ourselves caught in the busy holiday routines and the return of our young adults from college. While the holiday blues can affect us all, the stress and sadness many Black students feel during the holidays could also be tied to racial trauma.

According to the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), African Americans are 20 percent more likely to suffer severe psychological distress and anxiety disorders than other racial groups. The California Department of Public Health reports that in 2020, twelve of every 100,000 Black 18-24-year-olds in California died by suicide. Research also suggests that exposure to violence makes anxiety in Blacks 25 percent more likely to present as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than their white peers. Unfortunately, seeking mental health care is still considered a sign of weakness despite the recent strong wave of content across media platforms promoting the concept of self-care.

Through my work at Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, I see many young brothers and sisters face extraordinary challenges in getting proper mental healthcare, often because of limited funds, lack of health insurance, or widespread generational distrust of the healthcare system. Another significant barrier for patients is finding therapists who deeply understand the Black experience and its impact on mental health. Unfortunately, when Black patients do have access to clinical consultation, they are less willing to use prescribed psychiatric medications, preferring to self-medicate with alcohol, more recently, illegal substances like fentanyl and even religion.

Growing up in the heart of South Central, Los Angeles, I can’t count how many times I heard, “I am not crazy,” “we don’t get depressed,” or “we can pray it away.” As a parent of two young adult women, I am here to tell you that it does happen to us, and these stereotypes only create more problems. So, here are three tips that I have used to build strong bonds and normalize mental health discussions in my family:

  1. Label Feelings. In our current TikTok culture of “feeling some type of way,” many young adults have become comfortable using terms like depression and anxiety. However, using these words is not the same as having a complete grasp of their impact. Becoming familiar with common symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, or suicidality will equip families to recognize, label, and describe their feelings. 
  1. Engage, Empathize, and Embrace. First, engage with your emerging adult by remembering how difficult it was for you to talk to your own parents about your feelings. Empathize with your son or daughter’s feelings as genuine concerns. Offering platitudes like, “It’s not so bad” or “Look at the positives,” minimize your children’s vulnerabilities and can quickly shut them down, even if your intent is to help them feel better. Instead, embrace your kid’s openness by responding with your own mental health struggles as a young adult, which shows them it’s okay to feel this way.
  1. Ask Open-Ended Questions. One of the best ways to start a mental health discussion with adults is by asking open-ended questions and, more importantly, listening to their responses. Start with something like, “You don’t seem like yourself lately; what’s bothering you?” This kind of conversation starter will allow your kids to share their thoughts and are a better way to gauge what they may be going through.

Getting young adults to open up isn’t easy, but the holidays are a great time to start a tradition of open discussions and emotional check-ins. 

Kara James is a Nurse Practitioner with Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, providing direct clinical care to patients since 2015. As an evidenced-based clinician and activist, Kara’s work is framed through racial equity and anti-racism. She also played a vital role in creating the Black Health Initiative in 2020 to promote holistic well-being and health in Los Angeles’ Black communities.