Vulnerability is an art form.
And inside a seven-story office building in Renton, the art form is practiced daily from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night as teenagers respond to calls and texts from other teens throughout King County. Started in 1993, Teen Link is a program of the nonprofit Crisis Connections, offering hotlines for youth, veterans, people experiencing mental health crises, and anyone wanting help.
For young people, the last couple of years have been especially hard as they pivot between online school and in-person teaching. Milestones including prom and graduation have transitioned into hybrid or online events that open doors for some students but leave others feeling disconnected. Without their typical in-person support systems at school or via sports or church, students and young adults are continuing to face challenges as they prepare to enter a third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. This past December, Teen Link received a little over 300 calls and texts from youth seeking help.
But even before the virus, young people in the Seattle area were facing enormous stress: balancing school, friends and family; planning for college and how to pay for it; navigating relationships; and building their future in a landscape where youth are also leaders in sociopolitical movements for racial equity, climate solutions and gun violence reform.
Still other teens face barriers like homelessness, with an estimated 955 youth homeless on a given night in Seattle, according to King County reports. Poverty, domestic violence and substance use are also issues that come up alongside anxiety and depression.
The youth at Teen Link prepare for that reality.
“There’s about 40 hours worth of training they go through and they get trained in a bunch of different topics like self harm, grief loss, suicidal ideation, homelessness,” said Shaun Whitcher, a staff clinician who oversees 40 youth volunteers, mostly juniors and seniors in high school.
“We debrief after each call, especially if the content’s very heavy. We really teach them during the training that they’re not there to fix the issues that people have; they’re not a therapist. We just practice active listening skills, feelings validation, emotional support, and then we try to refer them to services, get them to connect with other friends or parents.”
Clarissa Perez, 20, was once a caller and is now training to handle calls herself. Perez is enrolled at Seattle Central College en route to the University of Washington, where she is a 2021 Martin Achievement Scholar. She reflects on her personal journey through trauma and healing, and her hopes for other youth in the movement for mental health.
This conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity. You can reach Teen Link by calling 866-TEENLINK or sending messages via teenlink.org.
Tell us about yourself. How did you get connected to Teen Link?
I was born and raised in White Center. Born to an immigrant father and a mother who struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues. Growing up, I witnessed a lot of domestic violence, many financial issues, and my mom constantly being incarcerated. I was just always living in fear.
When I was around 12 is the first time that I self-harmed. And my father and I, we just had a really difficult time because he didn’t necessarily know how to help me.
I ended up finding out about Teen Link when I was a freshman [at Chief Sealth] high school or maybe an eighth grader. I would call them all the time, to the point where sometimes I got the same person.
You mentioned that as a child of immigrants you felt pressure to do well in school. Tell us more about that.
What are the narratives that kids like me are told? It’s that college will be our savior, that our parents worked so hard to get to this country for us to go to school. But that was just another pressure I put on my plate. I felt like if I fell short of that, then I was doing my whole family a disservice.
I remember one time when my brother called and said, “Clarissa, our mom’s a drug addict, you know how hard our dad works.” He’s like, “You know where I ended up, because I’m always in jail. It’s you, Clarissa. You’re going to be the one in our family to make it; it’s going to be you.”
It was so much for me to have that realization. To know that this generational trauma could end with me, or could continue and be perpetuated. But I just couldn’t live up to that.
That sounds incredibly stressful. What happened?
Sophomore year, I remember vividly going to class and just crying because of how much I wanted to die. I just couldn’t do it anymore. My depression had gotten so bad. And I just didn’t have the support. And then I found out that my big brother who’s like my best friend was shot and killed. And it was so hard.
I think that’s what’s so difficult about what youth are struggling with. They’re having these really difficult circumstances, maybe [not like me], but even just being a teen is hard. We’re facing all these different things, but we’re still expected to go to school. We’re still expected to perform and to meet all these criteria for standardized testing. It’s so unjust to put us back in those situations when we’re really traumatized and we’re hurting. I think we’re seeing that more now with the pandemic.
What would you say to your peers and students who are struggling right now?
It’s OK to feel like everything around you is falling apart. Life can feel so hopeless and you can feel so hopeless within it.
I believe that there’s something inside all of us that radiates love, hope, courage and perseverance. I know so many people are tired of those words — perseverance and resilience — in a time of the pandemic, but it’s true. It’s what gets us through to another day to wake up.
We are so much more than what has happened to us and is happening to us. And it can never truly rob us of our life, unless we allow it to.
Because life is ebbs and flows. There are so many good moments. I told you my story and all the horrific moments in it. But there were beautiful moments in it too, like my dad and I walking hand in hand in the night, and him petting my hair while I tried to fall asleep, or braiding my hair. If you look close enough, you can find something that can maybe make you smile.