How Jennifer Siebel Newsom became a champion of youth mental health

November 21, 2022

Jennifer Siebel Newsom

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First partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom has spent decades spotlighting, examining and uplifting the mental well-being of young people. But for her, the topic transcends professional duties. It’s personal.

When Siebel Newsom was 6 years old, her older sister died in an accident, leaving her to navigate grief and emotional upheaval at a young age. She knows firsthand, she said, what it feels like to be a child who’s experienced loss and trauma, like so many California children have endured during the pandemic.

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

Siebel Newsom went on to college, earning an MBA, and then worked in Hollywood for a few years before turning her skills to documentary filmmaking. She’s produced four award-winning documentaries focused 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, looks at how boys struggle with expectations around masculinity. In 2020, “The Great American Lie” examined racial and income inequality in the U.S. Most recently, “Fair Play” focuses on the difficulties women face as they attempt to balance work and home lives.

Beyond the camera, Siebel Newsom has been a persistent, outspoken advocate in her husband’s administration for students experiencing trauma, anxiety, depression and other emotional hardships. This year the Newsom administration set aside $4.7 billion for youth mental health programs in California, thought to be the country’s largest-ever investment in the emotional well-being of children.

The money will go toward a slew of programs, including:

As first partner, Siebel Newsom has pushed for improved nutrition in schools, better access to the outdoors for children and other initiatives related to youth well-being. 

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

She has enormous empathy for the traumatic experiences young people and their families experienced during the pandemic and has been instrumental in organizing awareness around these issues as well as resources for social-emotional supports and practices for schools,” Darling-Hammond said. “She holds a vibrant vision for whole-child, whole-family, whole-community education systems that truly nurture all students so that 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.” 

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

“She knows fully well that comprehensive mental health services in California schools have been inadequate. While the governor’s recent investment will add additional school counselors to the workforce, there will be an even greater need to access films and curriculum support material such as Siebel Newsom’s documentary series,” Whitson said. “(We) would love to work with her and support her efforts.” 

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

 “I had to learn to ground (them), and myself too. It really helped,” she told a recent conference of counselors and school administrators in Napa. “When children experience these challenges, we have to realize 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, have helped shape her advocacy efforts. In 2021, Siebel Newsom toured the state listening to parents’ frustrations and challenges during the pandemic, gathering ideas for what could help families cope with school closures, quarantines, loss of loved ones and other hardships. She heard repeatedly about children’s technology addiction — young people who rarely left their rooms because they were glued to their phones, or spent countless hours a day gaming, or were consumed by social media, or had completely disengaged from their families and friends.  

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

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

One of her solutions to these challenges is to get young people outside more, and to eat more-nutritious food. She was a chief backer 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 comes from.

To encourage children to get outside more, she spearheaded the California State Parks Adventure Pass, which gives free admission to all California fourth graders and their families at 19 state parks, and the California State Library Parks Pass, 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 Siebel 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 keenly aware and informed of these critical issues we face as a society,” Cranston said. “We are so grateful for the support of both her and the governor’s office in acknowledging the vital role this plays in student success, in school and in life.”

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

As the governor’s wife, Siebel Newsom feels she is in a unique position to merge her personal interest in young people’s well-being with policies that reach regular Californians. With the pandemic, the surge in youth technology use, and a general increase in vitriol and polarization, she said she feels a sense of urgency about her job and the stakes for California’s children.

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

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