How one young Utahn is helping youth who have experienced homelessness improve their mental health

“I try not to project myself. I just try to be that support, that advocate when they need it.”

(Photo courtesy of AJ Perez) AJ Perez

This is part of a series of interviews with young Utahns making a meaningful impact on their communities’ — and their own — mental health. Read more.

Since 2019, AJ Perez has worked with Salt Lake County Youth Services on the Youth Action Board. She started with the Salt Lake County Youth Services Milestone Transitional Living Program, which connects young Utahns experiencing homelessness with safe housing, stable employment and connections to ongoing support and resources — including therapy — and now works as the social work liaison for the Salt Lake County Youth Action Board.

She recently earned her master’s degree in social work and says her experience working with young Utahns has helped her be more “open-minded” when dealing with tough topics — like mental health.

“We get emotional and passionate when we’re in these Youth Action Board meetings,” she told me in a recent interview. “I try to see everybody’s perspective, see where everybody’s mental health is at.”

This Q&A with her has been edited for length and clarity.

Sara Weber: Being 25, you’re not far off in age from a lot of the people you work with, right? What is that like for you?

AJ Perez: It’s difficult sometimes, because these individuals are incredible. I want them to be my friends, but I have to be professional. We’re not here to be friends. We’re here to be mental health professionals.

But it is really fun to kind of see people my age and how different we have grown up — the different experiences that everybody had come from, to see how far each individual has come.


Natalie Clark and AJ Perez, both 25, work with the Youth Action Board, a “first of its kind” program that last year received a $2.7 million grant from the federal government to help youth experiencing homelessness. “Youth Action Board … it’s like heaven on earth,” Clark said. “To me it is the first time that, in Utah, lived experts are being given an authentic voice — but, as well as that, authentic power.” Perez says her work has helped her be more “open-minded” when dealing with tough topics — like mental health. Visit sltrib.com to read about their efforts — and other young Utahns' work — to improve mental health around the state. #slc #saltlakecity #utah #mentalhealth #mentalhealthmatters #fyp

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What kind of challenges do you encounter?

I grew up in a low-income household. My parents both had two to three jobs at a time just to keep us in housing, so working with individuals who have experienced homelessness, I try not to project myself onto them. I just try to be that support, that advocate when they need it. If they need my voice to stand out, then I will be there for them.

As someone studying social work, what do you think about the current conversation around social media, mental health and misinformation?

A lot of this generation is getting their mental health diagnoses from TikTok and Instagram. They’re like, “Because this influencer has this type of anxiety, I have it because I also feel that way.” But then they don’t know where to go with that.

Okay, you may have depression, but here are some coping skills. Did that work for you? It didn’t? Okay, let’s try these other lists. Did that work for you? Okay, we’re getting closer.

Children are sponges. You give them something, they’re going to absorb it. Having those real conversations, like “Are you genuinely feeling this way? Or is it because it’s something that you’ve witnessed somebody else that you relate to going through?” helps differentiate them as an individual.

We’ve talked a bit about challenges — could you tell me about some of the positive impact you’ve seen?

Once you get a person opening up and actually communicating to you, it’s always a win. With one client in particular, she did not take to me very well at the beginning. And then towards the end, we were okay. And I took that as a win. Like we had progressed a little bit.

And just seeing the growth. It takes time, especially with this kind of population. It’s a lot of fight and flight for them. Because they’re on edge, you know. They just experienced homelessness. So taking every little victory as it comes, like, “Oh, they showed up for an appointment, let’s go!”

What advice do you have for other young Utahns who are looking to get into the space where they can improve their own mental health and help others do the same?

Educate yourself, and always assume there is more to learn. You may know a lot about a certain topic, but there’s always more to learn.

Never believe that you’re greater than somebody else, especially when they need support. You are their peer — you’re there for advocation. Advocation is truly just meeting someone where they are, not thinking you’re above them or below them, but that you’re helping them.

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