Updated: Apr 22, 2022
Lovers and strangers, colleagues and peers, family and friends - the many different kinds of relationships we navigate in our lives. Perhaps the hardest of these relationships to foster is our relationship to ourselves. The concept of self love is simple, but enacting the mentality and behaviors associated with self love can be a different ball game altogether. But like all difficult tasks, one should start with small steps. Self care can be the first step in a long journey to learning how to love oneself, and when it comes to learning new things, it's a good idea to start young. Self-Made Self-Care for the Teenager is an excellent book to help young people to develop habits of self care, starting them on their journey of self love. You can read my full review of Self-Made Self-Care for the Teenager here, but this ‘ōpio spotlight is going to be about the author behind this wonderful book.
Hailing from Long Island, New York, Isabella Souza wrote Self-Made Self-Care for the Teenager as a 16-year-old sophomore in high school. Freeing up some time for me in her busy schedule, I was able to speak with Isabella for several hours, where despite my shoddy internet connection and dingy webcam quality, I was able to feel the effects of her quick wit, thoughtful responses, and most strongly, her passion for mental health.
I ask her first and foremost, what is the relationship between self-care and mental health? Self-care is a “stepping stone to achieving a long term mental health goal,” she says. A long term goal of hers is to make more time for herself, and use that time to breathe and reflect. “I need to have time for myself because I know that [these] moments are where I have my biggest sparks of creativity…I experience pure joy when I’m free to think of random ideas. Also taking some time to just do nothing. [That’s] also something I’ve struggled with, being the impatient, workaholic that I am.” I tell her that my best friend also attends Columbia, and that it seems that being a workaholic might be a prerequisite over there. She shrugs with a bit of a guilty smile. But as a girl committed to many things, including her academics, Isabella has a deep understanding of how hectic the lives of students can be, and how important finding moments of time is. She emphasizes that self-care can be “enacted in singular moments that you can fit into a schedule” and that self-care can and should fit into your means. Stereotypically, people consider things like face masks and spa days to be “self-care”, and they can be, but not for everybody. All of the tips that Isabella includes in her book are free, with the goal of making self-care accessible for everybody, because everyone deserves to have a healthy relationship with themselves and their mental health.
The title “Self-Made Self-Care for the teenager, aside from being a charming alliteration, is a tribute to her parents, who immigrated from Brazil. Seeing them working hard to both make money and make the most out of their experience, and learning from their struggles and successes, Isabella approaches the world with a curiosity for figuring things out on her own. As a (hopefully) Economics and Neuroscience major, her passion, or what she refers to as her “guilty pleasure”, for understanding how our brains work is what kick-started her research journey on all of the information included in her book. In order to get the most information possible out of the fewest amount of pages, a guidebook-esque compilation of the most important points, Self-Made Self-Care for the Teenager is distinctly lacking in “fluff”, aside from short chapter introductions that help the reader understand the significance of the chapter’s subject matter.
A year and a half worth of research looks a little something like this: incorporating her own personal experience going through the school system, struggling with other mental health issues, like an inability to fall asleep, and realizing that sharing her methods of coping might do others some good, taking into account the what friends and other students of different backgrounds might struggle with, extensive survey work - on Reddit of all places - reaching out to mentors for guidance, and then actually getting to work with said mentor, a professional crazy enough to take a chance on a high school student trying to write a book for the first time and broach a subject that hardly sees the time of day.
Though Isabella is extremely intelligent, her archive of medical expertise isn’t large. On one hand she says, “I wanted the book to be personal enough, like a teenager wrote this and a teenager reading could think ‘Hey, maybe I should listen to them’”, and on the other she notes, “I felt that I needed someone with a medical background so that [parents] would feel comfortable picking up this book for their kids.” It certainly doesn’t hurt to have some professional opinions, and it’s a great opportunity for these teenagers to get medical advice without the stifling atmosphere of a doctors office.
Finding a mentor was a journey in itself. It’s not everyday that PhD holders are willing or have the time to work with an undergrad on a book that might be sold commercially. However, after sending about 80 emails, receiving copious amounts of denials, some referrals, or even receiving no response at all, “Eventually, I landed on Dr. [Thomas] Ollendick,” adolescent psychologist, who brought his daughter and pediatric physical therapist, Dr. Kathleen Ollendick, on board. “I was really lucky to end up with two mentors that were genuinely so invested and passionate about the project.” Isabella was genuinely surprised that these professionals were so willing to put their time and effort into her book. I guess the bottom line here is that if you’re passionate about something, and are willing to put work into the dream or goal you have in mind, then there are people out there willing to meet you halfway and support you. Asking for support or guidance might seem scary because many of us are afraid of rejection and the dreaded “no”, but even a rejection can foster connections that may lead to more open doors for whatever passion you wish to pursue. So in Isabella’s own words, “just shoot your shot.”
There was a sense of urgency that accompanied her determination to get this book published, a deep need to do something to address the ever present struggles of the kids around her. “I’ve seen kids stressed out of their minds. I’ve had kids in my grade commit suicide. And it just makes me really sad. Why are things this way? Why is this killing everyone? We’re all just working ourselves to death, even as children. I saw all this, and the lack of resources, and I wasn’t happy with it.” She talks about a friend that would routinely have ambulances arrive at their school for kids that would pass out from exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and stress. “I joke about being a workaholic, but it’s really not a joke. A lot of kids I know will work themselves really badly, to the point of not sleeping at all.” Frustrated that no one, not the students and certainly not the administration, wanted to address these issues, Isabella decided she would be the first to start the conversation.
Isabella played a major role in establishing an advisory committee at her highschool, with the intention of opening communication between students and administrators and bringing attention to the students' needs. “I figured that if I got enough people to come along and say ‘Hey, we’re really unhappy with our education and we think that mental health education is just as important as other core classes’, then they would listen.” I imagine it can be scary as a young girl willingly diving into a shark tank. She tells me honestly, “I was a junior at the time, so if they didn’t like me, I was afraid that they could still mess with me. There were times where I was like ‘Am I pushing this too far? Am I too loud?’” But how else is change going to come? “There were definitely times where the air in that room with the committee was tense. I would say ‘We’ve had students pass away. What is your solution to that?’ And it would be silent. But that’s literally exactly what I wanted. It was uncomfortable and I enjoyed it. People are too comfortable being silent and sweeping it under the rug.” Change doesn’t come with comfort. These administrators are supposed to take care of you, look out for you. If you feel frustrated, if you think they’re not doing enough, don’t be afraid to take it up with them. For mental health, or whatever other student needs aren’t being met, get involved and demand change because you deserve it.
The structure of school is rapidly changing before our eyes. Attending online school rather than in person cuts access to mental health resources for a lot of students. To adapt to that, it’s necessary for administrators (and perhaps even lawmakers) to reimagine and reallocate those resources, especially in terms of funding. “Our generation has different needs and struggles…This pandemic is going to define my generation for decades. There’s probably going to be psychological studies on us later…But look, I love listening to adults and hearing wisdom and listening to different experiences, but this is a time where [administrators] can also learn from us.”
Perhaps there’s another elephant in the room. What exactly is it that these students are struggling with? What exactly do they need in terms of support for their mental health? If students from all around are reporting that they feel exhausted and overwhelmed, how do we help them address their stressors and seek the help they need? For Isabella, it’s very important to break down the stigma surrounding teen anxiety and stress. “When you’re so young, and you haven’t experienced life enough to understand how to solve these issues, you kind of just feel helpless. It’s very easy to isolate yourself.” I shared with her how I started to feel a strain on my mental health in middle school. In the midst of navigating private school for the first time, making new friends and relationships, and dealing with all the whack hormonal changes that pre-teens go through, I knew that something was wrong but didn’t have the language to describe what was happening to me. I, like many others, was left wondering “What’s wrong with me?”. Not knowing how to ask for help left me treading in a pool of confusion and hurt. Isabella feels that the way to address this is by destigmatizing vulnerability and getting people comfortable with their humanity. There’s so much pressure to perform, to appear productive and professional, to be a workhorse even at a young age. There’s no time to have a mental health crisis when your homework is due the next day. If people could remember that they are allowed to feel awful, that they have feelings and are able to talk about them, it would be a huge step towards open mental health conversations. “[Even] if your priority is work, if you really like that stuff,” she says, “there has to be a balance between work life and taking care of yourself, because that will influence how you do your work.”
There’s also the stigma that people that struggle with mental health are simply bad people, with the potential to be disruptive or violent. This isn’t necessarily true, and even if it were, they would deserve to have their needs met regardless. “At the end of the day,” she says, “if we were all just a little more empathetic, the world would be in a very different place. Just a little bit. Work environments would be a lot calmer, more comfortable. Academic institutions as well. Family environments could be better. And for me, learning how to be more empathetic came from learning how to deal with mental health struggles.” Let’s help each other by caring for each other. Let’s build strong relationships with each other and change the way we address mental health and self-care as we move forward and flood the world with love for ourselves and each other.
Isabella’s care and empathy extends far beyond the borders of her high school, of her college, and even beyond Long Island. The proceeds from sales of Self-Made Self-Care for the Teenager go towards a stress management program at Camino Seguro School in Guatemala, of which she is the founder and CEO. She shares a conversation she had with her dad, telling him about her ideas for the book and how having a therapist, in general, would be really helpful. He laughed, and she was puzzled by his reaction. “He said [that] in Brazil, you were just one of those ‘rich people’ if you had a therapist.” In Brazil, the economic gap between the top 1% and the rest means that most of the population doesn’t have the means to afford a therapist. The mentality, also influenced by machismo culture, was that if you had a therapist, you must be really rich, and weren’t affected by things like food insecurity. People who can pay for therapy must not be afflicted by ‘real’ issues. Addressing mental health is both looked down upon and perceived as frivolous. “I wanted to look at a Latin American school for that reason. I wanted to help destigmatize mental health and the fear of [addressing] it there.” Plans to visit the school in person and work with the kids there were put on hold because of the pandemic, but the ultimate goal was and continues to be sparking a flame. I eagerly anticipate what kind of work this program will do in the future.
As our interview wraps up with our attention now focused on the future, I ask if there’s a “Self-Made Self-Care for the College Student” in the works, now that she has a few more years of life experience under her belt. “Maybe,” she laughs. “I don’t know about that. But if I could add to it now, I’d add a little bit more about socializing. Obviously I didn’t have these experiences then, but I’ve come to understand how emotional maturity often comes with time…I would also add a little more about relationship techniques.” Referring to the chapter about how to avoid toxic relationships, “I think I wrote it from a reactive perspective, like if you see X, Y, Z, this is how you should handle it. Which is important, but I think I also could have addressed ‘What if I’m being the toxic one?’ But my 16-year-old self wasn’t thinking about that. But growing up means I’ve had more time to reflect on my own relationships and experiences.” She also mentions she would also like to add some topics on sex and sex education, something lacking in high school curriculum but suddenly becomes very prominent once you enter college. “Perhaps it really is time to write another book?” I say. She responds that writing the [first] book in itself felt like an accomplishment, a great opportunity to write about something that was super important to her. Who knows what the future has in store for her in terms of her authorship?
The introduction of her book ends like this: “I hope this book does you a service if even to make you feel a little bit better for today.” What I am sure of in Isabella’s future is that she will lead by example the ways that self-care and self love will benefit us all, that she will continue to be an advocate for youth and for mental health and show others that they can fight for what they believe in, that even if you are young, even if you are taking the smallest steps, you can and will change the world and the way we live.