Sacramento, California. – Senior Partner Jennifer Sibel Newsom has spent decades highlighting, examining, and advancing young people’s mental health.
But for her, the subject goes beyond professional duties. It’s personal.
When Siebel Newsom was 6 years old, her older sister died in an accident, leaving her to deal with grief and emotional turmoil at an early age.
She said she knows firsthand what it feels like to be a child who has experienced loss and trauma, like many California children who have experienced the pandemic.
“I think we went to therapy once (after my sister died), and then it was like, ‘Go ahead, everything’s fine, we’re just going to pretend nothing happened,'” she said in a recent interview with EdSource, her eyes filling up with tears. “And it was heartbreaking to lose your best friend and sister. So I always knew that without your mental health, what do you have?”
Sibel Newsom attended college, earned her MBA, and then worked in Hollywood for a few years before turning her skills to documentary filmmaking.
She has produced four award-winning documentaries focusing on mental health, equality, gender and related topics, starting in 2011 with “Miss Acting” about how portrayals of women often focus on beauty and sexuality, and the impact on young people.
“The Mask You Live In”, released in 2015, examines how boys struggle with expectations around masculinity.
In 2020, “The Big American Lie” examines racial and income inequality in the US Recently, “Fair Play” focuses on the difficulties women face as they try to balance work and home life.
Off camera, Siebel Newsom has been a constant advocate and outspoken in her husband’s management of students with trauma, anxiety, depression, and other emotional hardships.
This year, the Newsom administration committed $4.7 billion to youth mental health programs in California, which is believed to be the nation’s largest-ever investment in children’s emotional well-being.
The money will go to a large number of programs, including:
- 40,000 new school counselors and other mental health professionals.
- Community schools that provide social services to students and their families.
- Simplified Medi-Cal coverage for young people to receive free mental health services.
- Comprehensive online center for youth mental health services with hotlines, videos and advice for parents.
As Senior Partner, Siebel Newsom has pushed for better school feeding, better children’s access to the outdoors and other youth wellbeing initiatives.
Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the state board of education, praised Siebel Newsom’s “consistent and tenacious” efforts on behalf of California’s children, families and educators.
“She has great sympathy for the traumatic experiences young people and their families have had during the pandemic, and has been instrumental in organizing awareness about these issues as well as social and emotional support resources and practices for schools,” said Darling-Hammond. “She has a vibrant vision of education systems for the whole child, the whole family, and the whole community that truly nurtures all students so they can thrive—feeding their bodies with nourishing food, feeding their minds with opportunities for deep exploration and their hearts with a sense of belonging, acceptance, and love.”
Loretta Whitson, director of the California Association of School Counselors, said Siebel Newsom’s efforts are particularly welcome after many years of underfunding in California for mental health services.
“She knows full well that comprehensive mental health services in California schools have not been sufficient. While the governor’s recent investment will add additional school counselors to the workforce, there will be a greater need for access to films and supportive curricular materials such as Siebel Newsom’s documentary series.” Whitson said. “(We) love working with her and supporting her efforts.”
Siebel Newsom is also a mother of four who, like most parents, has experienced the pain of watching her children suffer emotional distress during the pandemic.
“I had to learn how to put them on the ground, and me, too. It really helped,” she said at a recent conference for counselors and principals in Napa. “When children face these challenges, we have to recognize that it is not their fault. … As a parent, there is nothing worse than seeing your child in pain and feeling powerless to help.”
Her own experiences, as well as those of other parents, helped shape her advocacy efforts.
In 2021, Siebel Newsom toured the state listening to parents’ frustrations and challenges during the pandemic, and gathering insights into what can help families deal with school closures, quarantines, loss of loved ones, and other hardships. I’ve heard time and time again about kids being addicted to technology — young adults who rarely leave their rooms because they’re glued to their phones, spend countless hours a day playing games, are consumed by social media, or are completely disconnected from their family and friends.
In conjunction with a group she founded, the California Partners Project, she has used the information to create toolkits for families, schools, and others to help children overcome technology addiction.
“I will always be the one who says the elephant in the room is technology addiction and social media addiction and everything that comes with that,” she told EdSource. “Our children’s brains are still quite plastic and immature, and they are being manipulated by this technology which is creating more isolation and separation between us and each other and relationships. So we knew we had to address that in a holistic way.”
One of its solutions to these challenges is to get young people outside and eat more nutritious foods. She was a major supporter of the state’s Farm-to-School Grants Program, a $60 million initiative to pay for school gardens, cooking classes and other projects to bring healthy, fresh food to schools and teach children where their food comes from.
To encourage kids to get outside more, I led the California State Parks Adventure Pass, which gives free admission to all fourth graders in California and their families at 19 state parks, and the California State Library Parks Pass, which provides free motor vehicle passes to state parks and is available for the library card draw. . Amy Cranston, executive director of the Social Social Learning Coalition of California, said Siebel Newsom’s advocacy helped draw attention to the youth mental health crisis and promote wellness in schools.
“As we can see from her documentary work, she is very aware and well-informed about these critical issues that we face as a society,” Cranston said. “We are so grateful for the support you have given her and the Governor’s Office in recognizing the vital role this plays in student success, at school and in life.”
Darling-Hammond said that Sybil Newsom “cares for the state’s 6 million children and has the same concern and compassion she has for four children.”
As the governor’s wife, Sybil Newsom feels uniquely positioned to integrate her personal concern for the welfare of young people with policies that reach ordinary Californians.
With the pandemic, the surge in young people using technology, and a general increase in vitriol and polarization, she said she feels urgent about her job and the risks for California’s kids.
“This is a public health emergency,” she said. “Given what’s happening in the country and the world, it’s important that California succeeds now. And that starts with the well-being of our children.”