Lady Gaga’s Mom On the Pandemic’s Youth Mental Health Crisis

Lady Gaga

Cynthia Germanotta, president and co-founder of Born This Way Foundation, on how to help people cope during the pandemic

For many, the coronavirus is taking a big toll on so many facets of our lives— including our mental health. In fact, nearly half of Americans reported that the crisis is harming their mental health, per a recent poll. According to Born This Way Foundation president Cynthia Germanotta, this is especially true for many young people across the United States.

Germanotta started the foundation in 2012 alongside her daughter Lady Gaga in 2012, to help empower young people and challenge the stigma around mental illness. Now, she’s also a Goodwill Ambassador for Mental Health for the World Health Organization. Germanotta spoke to Wake-Up Call senior writer Tess Bonn about the impact this is having on the youth — and the importance of showing little acts of kindness at this time.

Wake-Up Call: The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on health and economic well-being, but also mental health. How are young people being particularly affected and how has your organization empowering this demographic?

Cynthia Germanotta: We’re seeing many, many different types of responses and many different types of struggles. To say that nobody was struggling would really be an understatement. In the youth population, we see some youth that are doing well and, in fact, finding good in this and turning it into good. There are others that are really, really struggling —particularly with the isolation factor and all of the rules and just the generalized fear that comes along with this.

Fear is probably the greatest emotion that we can have and we’re all in that fight or flight mode. For us, Born This Way, the good news is the only emotion that really trumps fear is compassion and kindness. And so we’re really choosing to lean into that and shine the light on these incredible stories, but also help the young people that are really struggling.

Some of the good things that we’re seeing range from youth that are starting services to help elders in their community where they maybe see them struggling [to buy] groceries or they don’t know how to use the internet, or they’re just simply lonely and staying connected with them.

There’s a group of students at Indiana University —there are six students— so in their downtime now that they’re not in school, they started what was originally just a Facebook page about where to go for food sources in their communities. They learned that people are lacking so many resources in these times. So it’s now become this full-fledged app in Indiana where you can find all sorts of resources, including mental health resources.

So we’re just [sharing] incredible stories of resilience among young people. But then again, we’re also hearing of many that are struggling… to figure out how to stay involved and connected — and some going to very, very dark places, even having suicidal thoughts. So we’re just really seeing things all over the board.

Under your latest #BeKindBeThere Initiative, you have developed ways to recognize and help someone struggling in mental distress. What are some ways young people show support for their friends even while practicing social distancing?

We really feel that communication and staying connected is the key, and that is taking all shapes and forms now. It’s people calling on their phone, on Zoom…So there’s just a number of ways to keep in touch.

We’re a research-based organization and we know from our research that when young people are having a mental health crisis, most often they prefer to talk to a peer. But a peer may often feel very ill-equipped to deal with having these very difficult conversations. So they don’t have the confidence in having those conversations. We also know that I would say almost a majority, nine out of 10 young people, prioritize their mental health —but less than half even talk about it. Having a tool like, where you can learn how to have these difficult conversations with a loved one, a friend, somebody that is in need, is really vitally important.

The good thing now is this lives in the social world — it’s on your phone, it’s on your laptop and you can go on and practice that while still practicing physical distance. You can learn those five golden rules about how to support someone in a variety of circumstances.

What sort of tools and resources are you pointing young people to?

Depending on what the issues [are], we’re pointing them to different places. Our website is one… It has a variety of resources.

If a young person is in need of online therapy, which we’re actually seeing a significant rise in, we direct them to places like Talkspace, Betterhelp, 7 Cups. If they’re in a crisis situation, we direct them to a crisis text line, to 211, to the suicide hotline. It depends on what the needs are, but we have repeatedly shared many different ways to disseminate this information to young people.

I’m leaning into my own vulnerability, which I can’t say that I have done, but it’s really been an eye-opener to me. I started sharing videos early on of how I’m coping with kind of the concept of physical distancing and disruption, and to let our supporters and young people know that Born This Way Foundation was there for them.

You mentioned teletherapy being on the rise. What do you see as the benefits of these virtual visits, especially for young people?

We think it’s very positive and we hope that it will stay. What I’m reading leads me to believe that it will stay, as well.

It’s going a long way in breaking down that stigma. A lot of the research that we did points to the fact that younger youth prefer more anonymity when they’re looking for a therapeutic situation. So rather than sitting down and having a live conversation and want it to be anonymous, maybe it’s texting — and there are so many wonderful outlets out there now that are emerging and even greater numbers. We believe that is going a long way to breaking down that stigma, making it more acceptable to have those conversations and we’re seeing quite a lot of it.

What are the biggest obstacles in making mental health services and psychosocial support being made widely available?

Some of the biggest deterrents to getting mental health support, particularly for the youth base, is not knowing where the resources are and also a lack of trust in those organizations. There are hundreds of apps out there. Which one do you go to? Which one do you trust? There’s been a lack of resources in those communities and also a lack of affordability, which is still the case. Now, fortunately, a lot of the apps we’re seeing are free right now — but there are some that are not free. They’re also wonderful, but they’re not free. But I’m also encouraged: I’ve seen a few emerge that your insurance will cover…assuming that you have it.

The more that we can help direct young people to those resources, I think the more they will be used.

Are there any tools or resources are you recommending for parents?

There were actually some really wonderful tools on both the WHO site — for how to have conversations around mental health, particularly during the pandemic — as well on the National Alliance on Mental Health website.

We know from research that a couple of reasons young people don’t talk to their parents is that their parents don’t share their own struggles. Now is a really good time as a parent for you to say, “You know what, I have my own fears and concerns about what’s happening. Let’s talk about it together. Let’s learn about it together.”

Another reason is that young people feel judged when they talk to an adult — and they also don’t feel validated. You know, I made a lot of mistakes. My daughter, who has suffered from depression since she was in middle school, is still being treated. I didn’t really understand the difference between listening and understanding. And the understanding part, to me, means really validating that what they’re feeling is very real for them.

The best example I can give: She once confronted me with an issue she was having. As parents, we immediately jump in to protect and fix mode. And that’s what I did. I tried to protect her. I shared things that I thought would fix the situation. She thanked me, but she very kindly said, “You know, Mom, I really just wanted you to listen, and I just wanted you to understand that this is hard. What I feel is hard. It’s very real and it’s very scary. Not that you have to tell me everything will be okay, but I needed more of listening.” That was a big lesson for me that I learned from my own child. I try as best as I can to pass that along to parents.

And lastly, what are the most important things that you’ve sort of learned during this ongoing crisis?

For me, it’s been the incredible resilience and fortitude that I have seen across the board, certainly in the youth base. Being there for one another; rising to the occasion.

As it is, young people have a lot of stress growing up. When you add the trauma of a pandemic on top of that, it’s very, very difficult. So, it’s bringing a lot of this to the forefront. I guess that’s the silver lining — and shining the light on a very much-needed field in the mental health space.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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