A freshman at the University of New Mexico, Alicia Gallegos was busy with a full class load when COVID-19 arrived. Suddenly, she had to make time to help care for two younger siblings, while many of the Pueblos in New Mexico — hers included — instituted a strict lockdown. 

“It was probably one of the most stressful times I had ever experienced in my life, and as a result of that, my mental health plummeted,” she said in the film “For YOUth, with YOUth, and by YOUth,” which was featured at a Wednesday session hosted by the APHA Public Health Film Festival. “For months, I didn’t know what to do with these thoughts or emotions. I just pushed them away or belittled them or maybe thought that something was wrong with me.”

Realizing she deserved to feel better and live a healthier mental, physical and spiritual life, she turned to college services for help.

Gallegos spoke about the making of the film, which explored the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of indigenous youth, during the session “Students Leading Change: Student Directed Public Health Films.” Created by and for Native youth via the Native Health Initiative in Albuquerque, New Mexico, it was filmed in summer 2021 for an indigenous youth summit.

“We wanted to connect with youth through sharing our stories and letting them know that they’re not alone,” Gallegos, a Native Health Initiative youth leader, told session attendees.

Students in the film also talked about how the pandemic took away part of their culture.

“I felt disconnected from who I was as a Pueblo person,” Gallegos said. “I had been learning so much in the months prior to the pandemic about our culture and our ways of life from family members and even just attending ceremonies. When we could no longer do that, I felt that had been taken away from me. And not only that, I was worried about my people and my family and their health.”

The sentiment was echoed by Jessica Sanchez, a student at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, who is from the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico.

“Many communities lost their elders (to COVID-19), and many of those elders are the traditional leaders,” she said. “They hold stories, languages….That sense of losing them is erasure in a sense. We lost some of our cultures and teachings if they were the only ones knowledgeable about those aspects.”

Sanchez shared how she took up running to help her mental health, an exercise she connected to spiritually. She shared the story of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 in New Mexico, when Pueblo people rose up against Spanish colonizers and Pueblo runners were dispatched to organize the communities. Sanchez even recruited her parents and siblings to run with her. It was something she looked forward to every day.

Another student film, “Water Is the Fuel,” offers a quick message about the importance of drinking water, provided via rap by filmmaker Cyndey Jones. She modeled the idea after commercial jingles and created it as a type of PSA to educate Black and Brown youth about the importance of drinking water instead of sugary drinks that can lead to diabetes, she told session attendees.

Jones’ film was the winning submission in a California competition organized by the Bay Area Nutrition and Physical Activity Collaborative in partnership with the City of Berkeley’s Healthy Berkeley Program.

A third film, “Know Your Privilege, Share Your Power,” was created by the Sitka Youth Leadership Committee in Sitka, Alaska, to educate other students about privilege and how they can be allies to under-represented youth. 

The other films shown during this session, along with all APHA 2021 Film Festival offerings, will be available on-demand on the Annual Meeting online platform.