A stigma smashing activist. Executive Assistant for a mental health organization. Host of a public access TV and radio station. Journalist. Poet. Future Sexologist. Bad ass fashionista. Meet 18 year old Emily Odesser from Westchester, New York who’s taking the world by storm!
photographed by Ramisha Sattar
I met Emily at an event back in October for Sad Girls Club, an incredible organization that focuses on mental health, where she works as an Executive Assistant. I was extremely anxious as I knew not a single soul, but her bubbly and open personality intrigued me across the room. When we began talking, I become more and more in awe of her incredible work and felt inspired by her contagious streak of passion.
Emily works on several projects everyday, and I’ve always wondered how she’s able to take on the load. I was completely shocked to find out how she struggles with her mental health on a daily basis. I found myself ignorantly thinking,
“She struggles with mental illnesses? But she’s an activist! She organizes marches and protests! She hosts events! How is that possible?”
This is when I realized how society dehumanizes activists. As if they’re a one dimensional image with no complex emotions and physical health. As if they’re warriors with never-ending vitality.
I sat down with Emily Odesser to discuss and destigmatize how activists are viewed and how she balances her mental illness while combating social justice issues on the daily.
Fabliha: Introduce yourself!
Emily: My name is Emily Faye Odesser but I go by Em. My Hebrew name is Panina Frida, which kids used to make fun of and call me ‘Panini’ — I love it though. I lived in NYC for the first few years of my life but my parents moved the family to Westchester so we could have more space to explore. I grew up between the two.
Fabliha: When did you start becoming interested in activism?
Emily: So when I was in second grade, I had bake sales for local animal shelters with friends, but the first time I remember being called an activist was in seventh grade. My gym teacher pulled all the girls outside on a 90º day and told us we were distracting the men who ran on the track. These men were in their forties, they had no relationship to the school, and we were being punished — it was absurd. The boys were allowed to play baseball and the girls were made to feel like shit. So a friend and I refused to apologize and it ended up turning into a full period conversation where a lot of rape jokes came from all the boys in the class. My gym teacher was asking if we would condone her walking around twerking and showing cleavage. It was awful.
For the rest of the school year, people kept calling me a ‘crazy feminist’, and I just shrugged it off (ie, vented at home and tried to keep my head up) and kept speaking out. My values were there for as long as I could remember, but when I became controversial, I was designated the activist of the school. It worked for me.
photographed by Ramisha Sattar
Fabliha: Tell me about your work.
Emily: I’m the Editor in Chief of Teen Eye Magazine (an online biannual magazine made by teens nineteen or under), the executive assistant of Sad Girls Club , a high school student, and a volunteer at 8Ball Community (a public access TV and radio station that does a lot of social justice work). I write poetry and I’m a journalist. I want to be a sexologist or a curriculum reformer in the future, and a lot of my activism centers around reproductive rights, incarceration, binary policies, and stigma-smashing. At this point, it would almost be easier to say what I’m not doing. Life is so hectic!
Fabliha: Activists regularly put themselves out there into the world and stand up against higher authorities. It is already self-labor but it can also take on a toll on one’s mental health. How does being an activist affect yours?
Emily: After the most recent election, I fell into the worst mental health period of my life thus far. I was dealing with college pressure and the trauma of leaving a toxic friend group and the global climate just exacerbated it all. Listening to the news was not conducive for my help, but attending protests and working with groups like 8Ball was the only thing that really remedied me. It was in those circles that I got to see the future and feel completely accepted and included. So being an activist affects my mental health equally on both sides of the spectrum. Learning about the injustices hurts; working with like-minded people fills my heart.
Fabliha: Society usually depicts activists as “angry thick skinned gladiators” that can’t possibly deal with mental illnesses. On top of that, people simply don’t understand how much labor goes into the work or how draining it could sometimes be. What do you have to say about this?
Emily: I’ve been interviewed as an activist figure for almost two years and this is the first time I’ve ever been asked this — that says it all.
My therapist told me that, as someone who was outspoken, I was choosing to take the hard route, and that resonated with me deeply. It takes extra work to go against a system that’s deeply rooted in place. This isn’t meant to be self-congratulatory, it’s simply factual. It’s difficult dealing with gaslighting, isolation, and shaming, and because we’re breaking down such massive institutions, the rewards/wins we get sometimes seem menial. You’ll work for months and be able to block one bill that most people haven’t even heard of, and you’re unnoticed. Anne Moody, one of my heroes, wrote a fantastic book called Coming of Age in Mississippi, that talks about the struggle of fighting constantly — what it’s like to have this urgency and be ignored. Sometimes after hard days, you’re like “why am I even trying?”. And then you see the impact, or you imagine the alternative, and you feel this amazing swell of pride that you used your voice. That idea helps keep the urgency, and makes the hard times fade into the background.
Am I still on track here? Activism is a type of therapy for me. When I’m protesting or speaking out, I’m able to remove the numbness from reading the news and use my voice.
Fabliha: I find that when activists take some time off from organizing or decide not to partake in an protest for mental health reasons, a lot of guilt is involved in doing so. As if they feel like they’re not doing enough. Do you deal with this and how do you address it?
Emily: That’s 1000% true. It’s happened to me many times. When you become an activist, you develop a “see something say something” mentality, and you want to fight every fight. Complacency sucks and I don’t think anyone in an activist community wants to be seen as a bystander. We have all those “don’t just watch us, come and join us” chants to confront the people who take pictures of us and stay silent; when we’re surviving through mental illness, and we have to break away for a moment, we start to imagine everyone is seeing us that way. But the good thing about activists is, they’re compassionate. And since we’re all going through the same amount of labor, we know that breaks are necessary. If I’m going through a bad mental health period — if my medication is acting weird, or life is screwing me over, or there’s alot on my plate — and I try to carry on life the way I do without accounting for the new barriers, I’ll wear myself too thin. I just try to remember that, and try not to wear a ~ neurotypical mask ~ so we can normalize those breaks.
photographed by Ramisha Sattar
Fabliha: People often don’t take into consideration on mental illnesses when it comes to activism and shame others for not participating in protests. I’ve experienced this many times myself. I have anxiety-panic disorder and I would have a severe panic attack if I were to be in a march/protest. What are some other ways that folks can engage in activism without compensating their mental health?
Emily: There’s plenty of ways! You don’t have to be in the field to make the change. If you have a social media platform, I’d recommend trying to incorporate what you care about on your page. Do your research and share concrete ways to get involved. Put it in your thirst trap captions if you need to. It’s not the only step, but it’s a good place to start.
I’d also suggest event organization. Reach out to groups and volunteer to coordinate meetings. You can stay home/facetime in when the day comes and social anxiety comes in. The internet wasn’t made for social justice, but we can co-opt it.
Fabliha: Why is it so important to create safe spaces, such as Sad Girls Club, to talk more about our own mental illnesses with one another while also discussing issues such as racism?
Emily: The first time I went to a Sad Girls Club meeting, I was in a bad headspace. I had just started taking Zoloft and I was really lonely. I walked into a room of people I didn’t know and I started getting hugs. Elyse created a space where there was no judgement, and since I’ve been on the team, I’ve gotten to realize how radical that is. Every time people join the community, we get a DM expressing that same sentiment. She took the pain and used a La Bratmobile and it’s helping people understand themselves in a new light.
Fabliha: What are other reliable organizations/activists that emphasizes on mental health that you know of?
Emily: I have two friends outside of Sad Girls Club that I want to highlight. The first is my friend Amanda Southworth. She’s one of the most successful humans I’ve met. She’s sixteen now and is on this quest to make accessible iOs apps and created her own tech company, Astra. Verena is a personal security system for the LGBTQ+ community; AnxietyHelper is a mental health toolkit for anyone that provides everything. It’s the swiss army knife of apps. It has info about treatments, coping methods, and signs of mental illness. It provides have access to directories of additional resources for almost every mental illness and offers guidance for panic attacks. Her apps have helped me dramatically.
My other inspiration is my dear friend T. Sydney Bergeron Mikus. Syd is a non-binary activist who works around Lyme Awareness and mental health stigmas. On their Instagram page, they discuss daily struggles in such an informative and interesting way. It empowers me and reminds me how powerful and simple it can be to share your story.
Fabliha: I see that you candidly discuss your own mental illnesses [and even in the moment] and your experiences whenever you have a panic attack on social media. Why do you do this and why do you feel it’s important to do so?
Emily: I share every other part of my life. If I got a broken arm I’d post about it. Why not do the same about the chemical imbalances in my brain?
Fabliha: What advice do you have for other activists who are struggling with their own mental health?
Emily: Go easy on yourself. It’s not a race. You’re doing the best you can and people see that. Keep going even if you’re not recognized.