C4 Innovations

Substance Use, Mental Health, Racism & COVID-19: A Youth’s Perspective

An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Audrey Wong shares perspectives on youth experiences with substance use, mental health, and anti-Asian racism during COVID-19 with hosts Nate Batiste and Nastacia’ Moore.

June 28, 2021


Erika Simon, Producer: [01:00] This episode is sponsored by Project Amp. Visit projectamp4youth.com to learn more.

Nastacia’ Moore, Co-Host: [00:07] Hello and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Nastacia’ Moore. I serve as the training and technical assistance support for C4’s Race Equity, Design, and Implementation Team, as well as providing leadership and support to Project Amp’s Youth Advisory Board. Today with me, my guest cohost and recent graduate from Louisiana Tech University and current YAB member [Project Amp’s Youth Advisory Board], Nate Batiste. Hi, Nate.

Nate Batiste, Guest Co-Host: Hi, Nastacia’.

Nastacia’: [00:37] Our topic today is talking about the Asian-American perspective and the impact of COVID-19, racism, and stigma on substance use prevention. Nate, can you tell our listeners a little bit about why you joined Project Amp’s Youth Advisory Board [YAB] and educate our listeners about what Project Amp is?

Nate: [1:01] Project Amp creates partnerships between youth and young adults in recovery for brief intervention and mentorship to help increase the resiliency to alcohol and drug usage. My reasoning for joining Project Amp’s Youth Advisory Board is because I’ve been a part of other councils for many years, I’ve been a part of this type of work for going on 10 years now, and it’s always been a passion of mine and seeing family members and friends of mine go through the struggle of substance use, put a fire in me to create pathways to help prevent substance use in young adults and people that look just like me. And I’m so excited to talk to our guest today.

Nastacia’: [1:55] It is a absolute pleasure to introduce our guest, Audrey Wong, calling all the way from Austin, Texas. Audrey is a junior at Westlake High School and serves as a member of the Project Amp’s Youth Advisory Board. She also is an active member of the social media and photography at the TEDxYouth at Austin. Audrey, thank you so much for joining us today.

Audrey Wong, Guest: [2:23] Thank you for having me. I’m so excited.

Nastacia’: [2:26] All right. So, let’s get into talking about what influences youth substance abuse, Audrey. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience about being in high school and what you believe influences youth substance abuse?

Audrey: [2:43] I think as a high schooler, even though I personally don’t have any lived experience with substances, and I don’t have family members who do either, it is apparent as a high school student when my classmates around me are under the influences of substances or using drugs and alcohol. I think it’s a combination of things that are going on at home, academic stress, and peer pressure that lead kids into these types of things. And while it is sad to see, it is quite prevalent.

Nastacia’: [3:10] Nice. I’m wondering if you can go into more about things that are happening in school and maybe factors that influence substance use among peers. I know you mentioned you don’t have any personal lived experience of substance use, but I’m curious to know about your colleagues, your classmates, that maybe you’ve witnessed using different substances and what that’s like.

Audrey: [3:40] In high school at my high school and the schools in my town specifically, vaping is the new cigarettes. It’s really popular for kids to sneak out of class, or not even go to class, to go into the bathroom and vape. And while you don’t see traditional cigarettes around our school a lot, you do see a lot of e-cigarettes with flavors, and I guess the battery powered Juul. For some kids, it is a thing to do at parties or at social events. They’ll hang out with their friends, go to the park and smoke weed, they’ll go to a party and drink alcohol. But for other kids, it is I think a coping mechanism. I know some people who have hard home lives, things outside of school aren’t the most ideal, and they deal with that stress by turning to substances, which is unfortunate, but the reality nonetheless.

Nate: [4:31] So Audrey, you mentioned that people in your high school use these e-cigarettes, smoke marijuana as well as drinking alcohol at parties as it could be a coping mechanism for them. So, do you think that with the pandemic it is creating a new social norm, as we say, with the racial unrest and expectations for young people to perform above and beyond academically?

Audrey: [5:04] I think COVID-19 definitely has had an impact, but perhaps not in the way we might think. I think a lot of people in my community especially have a lot of free time on their hands and with the new hybrid of online learning versus in-person learning, I think a lot of people are taking advantage of online learning and the free time that they have to go and seek out and use these substances. So perhaps if it’s not added stress because of the pandemic, it’s all the free time that the pandemic has given them.

Nastacia’: [5:35] Audrey, when I think about the pandemic and what we consider as our new normal, I think about how are young people finding time to take care of themselves. So, if you could share with us and our listeners today, what has self-care looked like for folks in high school? You know what? What has self-care looked like for you?

Audrey: [5:58] For me and I think a lot of other kids in high school, a lot of self-care has been indirect. And when I say indirect, I mean not face-to-face with other people, obviously because the pandemic has limited the amount of face-to-face interaction we can have. So, a lot of it is through social media. It’s actually been really cool to see people diffusing resources, and diffusing advice through social media during a time where we can’t meet in person. And I feel like that’s really helped people my age who might be feeling really alone or just isolated during this time. And while self-isolation can be hard, it’s necessary during this time. So self-care through the internet or through apps like TikTok or Instagram has just really been a blessing,

Nate: [6:43] I love that she’s saying that self-isolation is both beneficial and in some ways harmful. With the current state, we’ve had to self-isolate to keep ourselves safe, but at the same time, it affects our mental health which is the most under-recognized issue in today’s society. And with COVID-19 forcing us to self-isolate, how has that affected the mental health for you as well as your peers around you?

Audrey: [07:14] For me personally, it hasn’t been too bad. I’m lucky to have a strong support system around me, friends, family, and the ability to connect with people maybe online or face-to-face, but in a socially distance safe environment. However, for other people who don’t have that, I think it has been really difficult. As a high schooler, a big part of your social life in school is seeing your friends and being able to interact with your teachers. So, I definitely think it has taken a hard and negative toll on some of my classmates. And even though I might not see it face-to-face, I can recognize that it’s there and that not being able to see friends and family for a prolonged period of time does negatively affect students’ mental health.

Nate: [8:02] I want to switch up a little bit and get your perspective as an Asian American woman about the media’s misconception of COVID-19 and the spreading and creating from Asian Americans, as well as it being referred to as the “Chinese Virus.” How has that affected your mental health and your emotional health as well as those around you?

Audrey: [8:27] As an Asian-American female, it is more than disheartening to see that in the age of information we’re living in, people buying into and perpetuating this outrageous falsehood. Let me say it loud and clear, Asian Americans are not the source nor the spread of the virus. Asian Americans are not the virus, human beings are not a virus. And in a time where people around the world are in need of each other, relying on each other more than ever to overcome the current situation, it is just so sad to see people in my community, my fellow Americans, pointing fingers and using racism to blame an entire community for something that is outside everyone’s control.

Nastacia’: [9:12] Audrey, I couldn’t agree with you more. I want to ask you about what that experience has been like in school. So, amongst your peers, amongst Black, Indigenous People of Color, among your white peers, has there been a divide in cohesiveness, has there been a divide in the way students interact with each other because of what the media, the false hood in what the media has portrayed?

Audrey: [9:43] While I don’t think the divide is necessarily by racial groups, I do think there is kind of a political divide. People on one side of the political aisle will say, “Oh, calling it the Chinese Virus isn’t racist,” but even if it’s not racist, and even if the virus did come from China, the fact is that calling it the Chinese Virus makes Asians feel unwelcome and unsafe in their communities and has led to an increase in just unnecessary violence against Asian-American citizens. I’m lucky to go to a school where a lot of my friends will check in on me and say, “Hey, I see what the media is saying, but I’m not buying into that. How are you doing? Are you okay?” Which I’m so thankful for. But at the same time, there are people in my community and students in my school who are using the words of politicians and the media to outcast Asian-American students from the group, if you will.

Audrey: [10:39] They will call it the Chinese Virus, even though they know better. And I’ve even heard people just walking through the hallways scream, “I hate Chinese people,” as I’m walking by, which was a bit of a shock. And even if they were using it as some kind of joke, it really does make Asian Americans and me as an Asian American feel unwelcome in my own school, a community that I’ve lived in my entire life.

Nastacia’: [11:06] Audrey, you mentioned violence, I want to dig a little bit deeper into the increased racial attacks, the bullying you mentioned when folks are calling out, “I hate Chinese people. I don’t like Chinese people.” Do you think that that also stems from this Asian hate movement? We all witnessed the attacks on Asian Americans in Atlanta, where people were murdered and out of that came a movement, which was the Asian hate movement. What has that looked like from your lens?

Audrey: [11:43] Well, although I haven’t seen or heard of any overt physical violence in my school community, I think people are using the Stop Asian Hate movement to do one of two things. The first would be to raise awareness, use their own social media platforms, or use their position as someone’s friend to do what they can to stop or prevent this false narrative of Asians being a virus from spreading around. But the second would be to use this false narrative of Asians as a virus to make a mockery of the Stop Asian Hate movement, to align themselves with a political figure or a political party and continue to create division within a community when it’s really so unnecessary.

Nastacia’: [12:27] Audrey, you talk about folks making a mockery of the Stop Asian Hate movement, I want to ask about your support and your colleagues or your peer support in the home. So, our parental structure, or our guardian structures and supports are really important. So, can you talk a little bit about how young people such as yourself have been supported in this environment as we’ve experienced this new normal with COVID-19, as we experience the uncomfortableness with the racial unrest, what does support, informal or formal, look like in this space for young people?

Audrey: [13:18] I personally am very lucky to have a solid home structure and solid parental unit in my household. My parents are constantly watching the news, and it’s very important to them that my siblings and I stay informed, especially during this time when violence against Asian Americans is accelerating. But for those who don’t have it, often they look to support from other people in the world, through the internet or through social media. And even though violence against Asian Americans is heightened or has increased by 150%, 169%, I’ve just seen so many statistics. Even though this violence against Asian-Americans is increasing, it is so comforting to see people taking a stand and providing that support to youth when they might not have it at home.

Nastacia’: [14:11] It’s always important to not only make space in one’s household, I’m curious with folks going back to school or being in the hybrid model like you had mentioned earlier during our conversation, how are Asian-American students, how are students of color in particular supported in the educational setting as it relates to substance use, as it relates to the racial unrest with folks of color who look like me, black, African-American and folks who identify as Asians?

Audrey: [14:47] My district in particular has just been so of students of color and of all students during this time. I think in regards to substance abuse or perhaps the added stress that COVID-19 has been putting on people’s academic lives, the district has taken steps to kind of alleviate that by, for example, taking what we call “thought break days” for two days every month, that’s where we’ll get out of school early two days in a row every month to just take a break from staring at a screen all day and being able to get outside and kind of relax. On the racial front however, my district has recently hired a Diversity Equity and Inclusion [DEI] Consultant and kind of launched this DEI initiative within our district.

Audrey: [15:33] So, secondary students have been able to participate in student focus groups where a consultant and other members of the district administration will bring these students together to talk about the difficulties that they as students of color have in the district, how the district can improve, et cetera. And it’s just been really great to see the district acknowledging the racism that’s happening within our schools and taking steps to alleviate that.

Nate: [16:02] So, I’m loving that your district is taking this initiative to move forward. We’ve talked both about the district as well as parents keeping kids knowledgeable. I want to dive a little deeper into what that conversation actually looks like. Could you give us maybe one or two examples of something that you’ve talked about in those focus groups?

Audrey: [16:25] Yes. So, while I will keep names and identities confidential, just because that was the nature of the discussion, I can tell you that having participated in the discussions, some of what we talked about would be related to the everyday climate in our school, or how students of color have encountered any kind of discrimination. We’ve also talked about mental health, how does being a student of color in a predominantly white district affect mental health and what can the administration do to help students out? What are teachers and staff members not seeing on the surface that students of color experience every day? So, just those kinds of things, which I personally have appreciated so much, and I think are really going to be beneficial for our school district in the long run.

Nastacia’: [17:13] I like that. I want to talk about your sphere of influence. So we talk about parental support, guardianship support, we talk about the education support or the support that you get from educational settings, but Audrey, you’ve been in this work for some time, you’ve been on the Youth Advisory Board for some time really providing guidance to how we support substance use amongst our young people, you’ve been instrumental in helping us think through how we can become more equitable in our practices as it relates to substance use, as it relates to just promoting equity in spaces. So, from your lens and from your sphere of influence, what would you say is a priority for you as a young person to educate folks on as it pertains to substance use, as it pertains to equity?

Audrey: [18:19] So, in both the realms of substance abuse and equity, you must, if you’re going to make any sort of progress, or if you’re seeking to better understand people, have empathy. You have to set whatever stereotypes or preconceived notions you had aside and just be prepared to embrace people. I think a lot of times people are nervous or scared when it comes to addressing substance use or trying to promote equity because they have preconceived notions of people or people groups going into the work that hinder them from really getting deep down to the root. So, for me, as a young person working both in substance use and equity spaces, the most important thing for me is just to put myself in other people’s shoes when needed, treat everyone as I’d like to be treated, treat everyone with respect and don’t let any stereotypes that I had previously hinder me from getting to the root of problem.

Nate: [19:21] As an African-American male, I’ve always seen substance use within the African-American community, but we really don’t see it within the Asian-American community. Can you tell us what does substance use within the Asian-American community look like?

Audrey: [19:38] Yeah, I would agree with you. I don’t think substance abuse is the first thing that may necessarily come to mind when you think of Asian-Americans. You might think of crack cocaine for African Americans, but there isn’t necessarily a substance I think would applied to Asian Americans in the same way. However, I do think that one thing that might motivate Asian Americans or Asian-American youth in particular towards substance use is the stress they feel, whether it be in relation to academics or their home life. I know a lot of my friends and a lot of Asians just in general, have or face so much pressure to perform academically and be on their game 100% of the time. It’s kind of a cultural thing I would say to not go to people for help when it comes to things like substance use. So, I can see how stress would push people towards substance abuse and the culture of, don’t ask, don’t tell, or don’t go outside for help would exacerbate the problem.

Nastacia’: [20:44] Audrey, we talked about a lot and a lot for me was eye opening. So, I’m wondering if you would like to leave myself, Nate, and our listeners anything before we part?

Audrey: [21:00] Sure. I think I’ll leave two pieces of advice. One pertaining to the current pandemic situation and Asian Americans role in our current world. I would ask my fellow Americans and people in communities all over the nation to come together. There is no need for this division that has arisen by pointing fingers at Asian Americans. And we, like any other person, want to overcome this pandemic and just go back to normal, but that’s only going to happen if we can join hands rather than placing blame where it’s not needed. And second, as a young person in work focused around substance abuse and equity, I would say to my fellow young people, don’t be afraid to be a voice of change in your community, don’t be afraid to take action, because although you are young, you are the next generation of change makers, and change starts with you. So, just don’t be afraid to get out there and really relish and embrace that uncomfortability that you might encounter.

Nastacia’: [22:03] Audrey, Nate and I have had a pleasure talking with you tonight.

Nate: [22:08] It was really a pleasure diving deep into your thoughts.

Nastacia’: [22:12] We look forward to your continued leadership, your thought partnership, as you continue to elevate the voices of youth and young adults and use your sphere of influence for change. We appreciate you and thank you.

Audrey: [22:27] Thank you, Nastacia’ and Nate for having me. It was great talking with you all.

Nastacia’: [22:32] And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika: [22:37] Visit c4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode is sponsored by Project Amp and was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.


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