SACRAMENTO, California – First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom has spent decades highlighting, researching and improving the mental well-being of young people.
But for her, the subject transcends professional duties. It’s personal.
When Siebel Newsom was 6 years old, her older sister died in an accident, forcing 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 has experienced loss and trauma, as 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 act like nothing happened,” she said in a recent interview with EdSource. fill with tears. “And that was traumatic losing your best friend and your sister. So I’ve always known that, what are you without your sanity?”
Siebel Newsom went to college, earned an MBA, then worked in Hollywood for a few years before applying her skills to documentary filmmaking.
She has made four award-winning documentaries on mental health, equality, gender and related topics, starting in 2011 with “Miss Representation” about how depictions of women too often focus on beauty and sexuality, and the impact on young people.
Released in 2015, “The Mask You Live In” looks at how boys struggle with expectations around masculinity.
In 2020, “The Great American Lie” examined racial and income inequality in the US. Most recently, “Fair Play” has focused on the difficulties women face when trying to balance work and personal life.
Off 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 has earmarked $4.7 billion for youth mental health programs in California, which is believed to be the largest-ever investment in the emotional well-being of children.
The money goes to a whole host of programs, including:
- 40,000 new school counselors and other mental health professionals.
- Community schools that provide social services to students and their families.
- Streamlined Medi-Cal coverage for young people to receive free mental health care.
- A one-stop online hub for youth mental health with hotlines, videos and tips for parents.
As the first partner, Siebel Newsom has championed improved nutrition in schools, increased 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 persistent” efforts on behalf of California’s children, families and teachers.
“She has tremendous empathy for the traumatic experiences young people and their families have endured during the pandemic and has been instrumental in organizing awareness around these issues, as well as social-emotional support resources and practices for schools,” said Darling-Hammond. “She has a vibrant vision of whole-child, whole-family, and whole-community education systems that truly nurture all students so they can thrive — nourishing their bodies with nourishing food, their minds with opportunities for deep exploration, and their hearts with a feeling of connection, acceptance and love.”
Siebel Newsom’s efforts are especially welcome after so many years of funding shortfalls in California for mental health care, said Loretta Whitson, director of the California Association of School Counselors.
“She knows full 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 for access to films and curriculum support materials, such as the documentary of Siebel Newsom. series,” said Whitson. “(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 fear of seeing her children suffer emotional distress during the pandemic.
“I had to learn to ground (them), and myself. It really helped,” she told a recent conference of counselors and school administrators in Napa. “When children experience these challenges, we need 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 contributed to her advocacy.
In 2021, Siebel Newsom toured the state, listening to parents’ frustrations and challenges during the pandemic and getting ideas on what could help families cope with school closures, quarantines, the 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 absorbed by social media, or had disconnected completely from their families and friends.
She and a group she founded, California Partners Project, used the information to create toolkits for families, schools and others to help children overcome technology addiction.
“I will always be the person who says the elephant in the room is technology addiction and social media addiction and everything that comes with it,” she told EdSource. “Our kids’ brains are still plastic and not fully set up, and they’re being manipulated by this technology that creates more isolation and disconnects us from each other and relationships. So we knew we had to take a holistic approach to that.”
One of her solutions to these challenges is to get young people to go outside more and eat more nutritious food. She was a lead sponsor 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 kids 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 is free offers vehicle passes for state parks available for checkout with a library card. Amy Cranston, executive director of the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for California, said Siebel Newsom’s advocacy has helped bring attention to the youth mental health crisis and promote well-being in schools.
“As we can see from her documentary work, she is well aware and informed about these critical issues we face as a society,” said Cranston. “We are so grateful for the support from both her and the governor’s office in recognizing the vital role this plays in student success, in school and in life.”
Darling-Hammond said Siebel Newsom “cares for the state’s 6 million children with the same sense of concern and compassion she does for her own four children.”
As the wife of the governor, Siebel Newsom feels she is in a unique position to combine her personal interest in youth welfare with policies that reach out to ordinary Californians.
With the pandemic, the increase in youth use of technology and a general increase in vitriol and polarization, she said she feels a sense of urgency about her job and commitment to the children of California.
“This is a public health emergency,” she said. “Considering what’s going on in the country and the world, it’s critical that California succeed right now. And that starts with the well-being of our children.”