How Jennifer Siebel Newsom became a champion of youth mental health

First partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom has spent decades spotlighting, examining and uplifting the mental well-being of young people.

But for her, the topic goes beyond professional obligations. It’s personal.

When Sybell Newsom was 6 years old, her older sister died in an accident, leaving her to navigate grief and emotional turmoil at a young age.

She knows firsthand, she said, what it feels like to be a child who has experienced loss and trauma, as so many California children have during the pandemic.

“I think we went to therapy once (after my sister died) and then it was like, go ahead, everything’s fine, we’re just going to pretend like nothing happened,” she said in a recent interview with EdSource, her eyes wide. full of tears. “And it was traumatic to lose your best friend and your sister.” So I’ve always known that, without your mental health, what do you have?

Sibel Newsom went on to college, earning an MBA, and then worked in Hollywood for several years before turning her skills to documentary filmmaking.

She has produced four award-winning documentaries focusing on mental health, equity, gender and related topics, starting in 2011 with Miss Representation about how depictions of women are too often focused on beauty and sexuality and the impact on young people.

The Mask You Live In, released in 2015, sees boys struggle with the expectations surrounding masculinity.

In 2020, The Big American Lie examined racial and income inequality in the U.S. More recently, Fair Play has focused on the difficulties women face as they try to balance work and home lives.

Off camera, Siebel Newsom has been a persistent, outspoken advocate in her husband’s administration for students experiencing trauma, anxiety, depression and other emotional difficulties.

This year, the Newsom administration committed $4.7 billion to youth mental health programs in California, believed to be the nation’s largest investment ever in children’s emotional well-being.

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The money will go to a number of programs, including:

  • 40,000 new school counselors and other mental health professionals.
  • Community schools that offer social services to students and their families.
  • Streamlined Medi-Cal coverage so youth can get free mental health services.
  • A one-stop online center for youth mental health services including helplines, videos and advice for parents.

As a first partner, Ziebel Newsom advocates for improved school nutrition, better access to the outdoors for children and other initiatives related to youth well-being.

Linda Darling-Hammond, chairwoman of the State Board of Education, praised Sibel Newsom’s “consistent and persistent” efforts on behalf of California’s children, families and teachers.

“She has tremendous empathy for the traumatic experiences young people and their families have had during the pandemic and has been instrumental in organizing awareness around these issues, as well as social-emotional support resources and practices for schools,” said Darling-Hammond. “She has a vibrant vision for whole-child, whole-family, and whole-community education systems that truly nurture all students so they can thrive—feeding their bodies with nutritious food, their minds with opportunities for deep inquiry, and their hearts.” with a sense of belonging, acceptance and love.”

Sibel Newsom’s efforts are especially welcome after so many years of funding shortages in California for mental health services, said Loretta Whitson, director of the California School Counselor Association.

“She knows full well that comprehensive mental health services in California schools are inadequate. While the Governor’s recent investment will add additional school counselors to the workforce, there will be an even greater need for access to films and curriculum support material, such as Sibel Newsom’s documentary. series,” Whitson said. “We would like to work with her and support her efforts.”

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Zibel Newsom is also a mother of four who, like most parents, has experienced the pain of watching her children suffer through emotional distress during the pandemic.

“I had to learn to ground (them) and myself. It really helped,” she said at a recent conference of counselors and school administrators in Napa. “When kids experience these challenges, we have to realize that it’s not their fault… As a parent, there’s nothing worse than seeing your child in pain and feeling powerless to help.”

Her own experiences, as well as those of other parents, helped shape her advocacy efforts.

In 2021, Sibel Newsom toured the country listening to parents’ frustrations and challenges during the pandemic, gathering ideas on what can help families cope with school closings, quarantines, the loss of loved ones and other hardships. She kept hearing about the technology addiction of kids—young people who rarely left their rooms because they were glued to their phones, or spent countless hours a day playing games, or consumed by social media, or completely disconnected from their families and friends.

In collaboration with the group she founded, California Partners Project, she used the information to create tools for families, schools and others to help children overcome technology addiction.

“I’m always going to be the person who says the elephant in the room is technology addiction and social media addiction and everything that comes with that,” she told EdSource. “Our children’s brains are still plastic and not fully set, and they are manipulated by this technology that creates more isolation and separates us from each other and relationships. So we knew we had to address it in a comprehensive way.”

One of her solutions to these challenges is to get young people outside more and eating more nutritious food. She was a major supporter of the state’s Farm to School grant program, a $60 million initiative to pay for school gardens, cooking classes and other projects to bring healthier, fresher food to schools and teach children where their food is coming.

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To encourage kids to get outside more, she spearheaded the California State Parks Adventure Pass, which gives all California fourth-graders and their families free admission to 19 state parks, and the California State Library, which provides free vehicle passes to state parks. available for check-out with a library card. Amy Cranston, executive director of the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for California, said Sibel Newsom’s advocacy has helped draw attention to the youth mental health crisis and promote wellness in schools.

“As we can see from her documentary work, she is very aware and informed about these critical issues that we face as a society,” Cranston said. “We are very grateful for the support from both her and the governor’s office in recognizing the vital role this plays in student success, in school and in life.”

Darling-Hammond said Siebel Newsom “cares for the state’s 6 million children with the same sense of care and compassion that she has for her own four.”

As the governor’s wife, Siebel Newsom feels she is in a unique position to combine her personal interest in the well-being of young people with policies that reach ordinary Californians.

With the pandemic, the rise of youth technology use and a general increase in vitriol and polarization, she said she feels a sense of urgency about her work and the stakes for California’s children.

“This is a public health emergency,” she said. “With what’s going on in the country and the world, it’s critical that California succeed right now.” And that starts with the well-being – of our children.


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