California First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom on promoting youth mental health

California First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom on promoting youth mental health

Documentary filmmaker and actor Jennifer Siebel Newsom made the mental health of children and teenagers her number one priority when her husband, Gavin Newsom, became governor of the US state of California in 2019, and it was also the subject that brought her to Greece recently, to speak at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation’s Nostos conference.

Another important initiative she undertook was to shed the title of “first lady” traditionally held by the wives of American presidents and governors in favor of the gender neutral “first partner.”

“I had this idea to coin the term ‘first partner,’ knowing that there will be a female governor soon, and knowing that there will be an LGBTQ+ governor, and trying to sort of symbolically suggest what’s possible in both of those future opportunities,” Siebel Newsom told Kathimerini, though she adds that this was not the only reason.

“I’m a huge believer in partnership, I believe that partnership makes the world go round. Without partnership, we’re living that rugged individualistic philosophy and mentality that’s sort of ingrained into American culture, that people just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But not everybody has bootstraps,” she said.

‘We all know that if you envelop the mother and the child with support and a sense of safety and security, the less suffering that child will have throughout their life’

“We, as a culture and society, need to move towards recognizing that nobody achieves everything on their own. We are a collective,” said Siebel Newsom, whose 2011 documentary “Miss Representation,” which studies how the portrayal of women by the media contributes to the under-representation of women in influential positions.

The term “first partner” was also geared towards this end.

“Oftentimes in government, you have this woman behind the scenes, but she’s equally smart and capable and talented. In American culture, we haven’t seen women as leaders until recently,” she noted. “So it’s just shining a light on what we’ve rendered invisible, which is often women and the feminine.”

Siebel Newsom decided to turn her attention to youth mental health because, as she said, in the US, “the adolescent mental health crisis is the defining public health crisis of our time. This public health crisis required a really big system change, which is why the governor invested $4.7 billion in completely restructuring the behavioral health system in California, so that all children are routinely assessed and serviced and supported.”

She launched the California for All Kids initiative in 2019, whose aim is to promote methods of preventing mental health problems from escalating, starting with the basics.

“We’ve really focused on healthy whole food, equitable access to the outdoors, and all of California’s beauty and bountiful state park system, and on the basics of sleep, nutrition, time away from devices, and relationships in person,” she told Kathimerini, adding that the program seeks to facilitate access to education and healthcare, but also to exercise by promoting physical activity at schools, “diverse physical movement that’s both play-based and skill-based, that’s not just structured, competitive sports that, I would say, are robbing children of their youth.”

Nutrition is another area where Siebel Newsom has made a significant contribution, helping introduce state legislation making it mandatory for California’s public schools to provide students with free breakfast and lunch. She was responsible for the quality of those meals.

“The goal of our Farm-to-School initiative is that all children in California will receive fresh, delicious and nutritious, locally sourced food that is produced, prepped, packaged and prepared in either a district kitchen or a school kitchen by trained culinary chefs,” she explained.

Even though the political “benefits” of youth mental health programs are not immediate, both she and her husband remain dedicated to the cause.

“We all know that if you envelop the mother and the child with support and health nutrition, and a sense of safety and security, and educational opportunity, the more you can do for the child in the very early beginning, going all the way to prenatal care, the less suffering that child will have throughout their life, but also the less cost to our healthcare system,” she stressed. 

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