Into the Light: Makena James

Makena James will be a freshman at Steamboat Springs High School this fall. (Photo by John F. Russell)

As an incoming Steamboat Springs High School freshman, Makena James seems older than her 14 years — a bit of an old soul who is not afraid to talk about the mental health struggles facing her generation, known as Generation Z.

“I think mental health is such a big issue in our community, and not just in our community, but our entire country and the world in general,” she said. “But it’s so stigmatized that nobody really talks about it that much. I think we need to break that stigma and start talking about it, because it’s a really serious issue, and we’re not getting anywhere by staying silent.”

Makena said a lot of her peers are really suffering with issues like depression and anxiety.

“The numbers for mental health problems are surprisingly high,” said Makena, who serves as a member of the Routt County Teen Council. “And it’s really scary to see that these things that I used to think only happened in books and movies, when I was younger, are actually affecting people I know.”

She, herself, has struggled with anxiety.

“It kind of comes out of nowhere,” Makena said. “Everything is completely fine, and then suddenly, my brain starts racing, and I start thinking, ‘What happens if this happens?’ And it’s completely unrealistic scenarios. Then my heart starts racing, I get really nervous, and it just spirals out from there.

“I’ve been able to find patterns in things that I’m experiencing, and I find things to do that help with them,” she added. “It’s not necessarily been getting better, but it’s getting more manageable.”

Makena describes 2020 as an “eye-opening” year for teenagers.

“You’re completely isolated from everybody you know, and the only methods of communication are through phones or email or stuff. And now we can talk to people face to face, and it can be confusing. It’s so weird to think that two years ago, talking to people like this was normal. It feels like a whole different world.”

She said the news events of the past year were also life altering.

“It’s like we got slapped in the face by reality,” Makena said about herself and her peers. “And now we can’t go back to the way we were before, because we see this entirely new world in an entirely different light.”

But she believes the experience with a global pandemic, a contentious presidential election and the racial justice movement will breed resiliency.

“We’ve been forced to grow up in a very hard time, and we’ve sort of had to adapt and overcome,” Makena said. “And for adults, they’ve also had to do that, but it’s a lot harder on teenagers, because the entire world as we knew it was flipped upside down.”

“We’re also at an age where we can look at anything — a world of knowledge is at our fingertips and on our phone,” Makena said. “That can be good, but it can also be really detrimental to our mental health.”

In addition to access to news, Makena said phones also mean teenagers have the world of comparisons at their fingertips, and it’s one reason that she doesn’t engage with social media right now.

“‘Why is she so pretty? What can’t I look that? Why is her life so much better than mine? Why is this person so cool?’ You can compare yourself to everyone, and people don’t necessarily post the bad side of their life,” Makena said. “And so you start comparing all the aspects of your life to only the happy aspects of this random person. Therefore, it makes you feel less good about yourself.”

Makena said talking about mental health is hard, but it’s important to listen to the other person and not change the way you typically are with them.

“If someone tells you that they’re struggling with depression or anxiety, they’re the same person as before. They’re just having a bit of trouble. And even though you should be there to support them for anything, you shouldn’t treat them like they’re a porcelain doll, about to break, if you say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. They need you, and they’re just another human being.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.