How one young Utahn is helping youth who have experienced homelessness improve their mental health

From The Salt Lake Tribune comes this interview (by “Voices” editor Sara Weber) with AJ Perez, a peer worker who helps formerly unhoused youths with their mental health: 

Sara Weber: Being 25, you’re not far off in age from a lot of the people you work with, right? What is that like for you?

AJ Perez: It’s difficult sometimes, because these individuals are incredible. I want them to be my friends, but I have to be professional. We’re not here to be friends. We’re here to be mental health professionals.

But it is really fun to kind of see people my age and how different we have grown up — the different experiences that everybody had come from, to see how far each individual has come.

What kind of challenges do you encounter?

I grew up in a low-income household. My parents both had two to three jobs at a time just to keep us in housing, so working with individuals who have experienced homelessness, I try not to project myself onto them. I just try to be that support, that advocate when they need it. If they need my voice to stand out, then I will be there for them.

As someone studying social work, what do you think about the current conversation around social media, mental health and misinformation?

A lot of this generation is getting their mental health diagnoses from TikTok and Instagram. They’re like, ‘Because this influencer has this type of anxiety, I have it because I also feel that way.’ But then they don’t know where to go with that.

Okay, you may have depression, but here are some coping skills. Did that work for you? It didn’t? Okay, let’s try these other lists. Did that work for you? Okay, we’re getting closer.

Children are sponges. You give them something, they’re going to absorb it. Having those real conversations, like ‘Are you genuinely feeling this way? Or is it because it’s something that you’ve witnessed somebody else that you relate to going through?’ helps differentiate them as an individual.”

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