This story is part of the 2020 Project, a special men’s health project that examines the lives of 20 different 20-year-old men across America. To learn more about the others, click here.
CAMERON KASKY issued Much of his summer spent in a small townhouse in Alaska, completing a fiction workshop for a graduation from Columbia University, looking back on the very dramatic but very non-fictional arc of his life so far.
On February 14, 2018, Kasky Junior was at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida when a gunman opened fire, killing 17 people and injuring 14 others. Kasky and his younger brother Holden survived by hiding in a classroom. It was one of the deadliest mass shootings in America.
Kasky and his classmates, including fellow survivors Emma González and David Hogg, formed a youth activist group called Never Again. Their goal: to personalize the fight for gun control through student political activism. Their anger has also fueled the rise of the nationwide march for our lives.
With Gen Z poised to form one of ten voters who are eligible for the upcoming presidential election, there is pressure on Kasky’s generation to change office. He says he feels it with more than 400,000 followers on Twitter, including Bernie Sanders and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
The more Kasky has spoken, the more he has become a target for trolls, he says. He is also aware that young Americans are now far more threatening than school shootings. All of this got him thinking about mental health – the nation and his own. “I wanted to socially distance myself from the continental United States,” he says.
Gen Z members are more likely than others to describe their mental health as fair or bad, according to a January 2019 report by the American Psychological Association. 75 percent say mass shootings are a significant source of stress, compared to 62 percent of adults overall.
“You’re going to have a traumatized generation: the generation that went to school and walked around and saw guns pointed in their faces,” Kasky says of the armed security forces now roaming school grounds across the United States. “Schools don’t invest in counselors or mental health services. They invest in police officers who point guns at children. ”
Additionally, there are other fears that arise from living online, from FOMO to cyberbullying. According to polls by the Pew Research Center in March and April 2020, adults ages 18-29 are more likely than their elders to experience high levels of psychological distress, including anxiety, insomnia, depression, and loneliness. “Our generation has a mental health crisis,” says Kasky.
He knows all of this firsthand and lives with bipolar disorder as well as anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
For Kasky, figuring out what’s next starts with taking a step back. For some time, he says, Parkland’s trauma was the way he talked about better mental health for everyone. In the meantime, he had a personal battle with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression that was not recognized. “I was raised to believe that men are not sad. Men don’t cry. A man’s manhood is a very, very fragile thing. It’s something that can trick a man into doing very stupid things to protect.
“I almost lost my life to my mental health problems. I’ve been suicidal for a long time. And if I hadn’t accepted the fact that I have bipolar disorder and made an effort to treat it, I wouldn’t be here now. . . . But when I did it saved me. “And now Kasky says he’s trying to figure out the best way to talk about it.
Taking the time to work on himself in Alaska, he has reassessed his position in public given the plethora of activists who deserve a microphone. After the murder of George Floyd and the recent spike in protests against Black Lives Matter, Kasky said he realized that his words could have had so much resonance because he is a survivor, but also because he is white.
“The United States does not feel collective grief when colored children are murdered. But when white children are murdered, they seem very, very interested, ”he says of the general public reaction to the recent murders. “It’s so bizarre because so many people have struggled for decades to hear their voices. And me? I almost annoy how heard my voice is – it’s such a place of privilege. ”
Kasky says he’s also concerned about how social media is fueling sort of virtual lip service, with people posting black squares on their feeds, ostensibly as a form of solidarity, but then quickly moving on to the next hashtag-worthy moment.
But Kasky adds that he’s grown confident enough to realize that he, too, could play a role in this cycle. “I go around fucking Instagram, I go on TV and I express my views.”
When protesters for BLM (COVID-19 damn it) gathered only to be dejected, gassed in tears, trampled and arrested, Kasky was frustrated that he had the luxury of being an activist safe with so many people in color not have. And he wonders if he should be on stage at all. “I think a lot of white activists are in a place where it’s our turn to shut up,” he says. “It is time for us to stop and listen and learn.”
But there’s still so much to be said, though for Kasky and many 20-year-olds like him trying to grow up in a country that gives them a great center, it’s unclear what to expect after the turn of the decade, fingers “As he puts it.
“I’m facing this great Leviathan future and it’s like a void.” His voice is frustrated when he talks about the potential of Gen Z and what he sees as the obvious disregard for the United States for what it stands for.
“We inherit a world that is a world of hate. And look, the world has always been a world of hate; It’s always been a land of hate, ”says Kasky. “But there is no longer a facade. The curtains were drawn back. And you can’t fool people. ”
He uses social media to encourage people to vote for the candidate who is more concerned with mental health resources at the federal level. When asked about his gun control activism, Kasky says, “I think the most effective thing we could do was tell the country a story – a story of its own. I think storytelling is what I can do in my life. ”
It is crucial to contribute to and lead systemic change, he says. But as he discovered, there has to be a balance.
“People endanger their mental health [create social change]. If you lose your life and well-being to working for change, the world will lose someone precious, ”says Kasky. “You don’t have to save everyone. You have to save a person. And if that one person is you, that’s fine. “
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