Teenage poet harnesses power of words to help youngsters with mental health challenges

Teenage poet harnesses power of words to help youngsters with mental health challenges
Teenage mental health actionist Jess Robus. (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Teenage mental health actionist Jess Robus has published two books, and aims to reach and ease the battles of as many young people as possible.

Jess Robus is one of the most sincere, funny and intelligent seventeen-year-olds that I have ever met. She also speaks very fast and with a linguistic confidence that I have seldom heard before, even from academics of my own generation. It is not often that you meet someone who is so clearly walking their own path through life, and exuding generosity and compassion with almost every step.

Throughout our amusing, thought-provoking, whirlwind of a conversation, we chatted about her obsession with musical theatre, her passion for literature, and our shared love for the music of Taylor Swift. Within the first five minutes, she had taken me through the provenance of some of her favourite Afrikaans words, all told with the delight of someone who clearly enjoys the idiosyncratic development of language.

She also told me of her recent diagnosis with autism which in her own words “made a lot of things make sense”.

At 12, Jess wrote a children’s book called Arnold The Not Dinosaur. It is a book about identity, self-acceptance and being unique. It is a beautifully illustrated children’s book, with an important message and a compassionate attitude towards panic attacks and anxiety, a story that may well help children to grow up feeling less alone. 

A Few Slivers of Light is a collection of poems that Jess wrote between the ages of 11 and 14. The book is stylistically very contemporary, but throughout the experimental phrasing and structure, Jess’s heart pours through. It is a journey in three parts; The Darkness, The Dawn and The Day. The journey from despair to hope is perfectly summed up with the brief but powerful final stanza:

“We were never promised that the road would be easy, only that the destination would be worth it.”

Both of these books have been self-published and over the last couple of years, Jess has taken it upon herself to promote them through readings, interviews and speaking engagements. 

“I’m very sensitive. As scary as it can be to put some things out I knew I could help others and I wanted to do that. I felt a responsibility to help people feel validated in their struggles.”

But this is not about Jess as a self-published author, this is about helping people. It isn’t important to her to sell lots of books. What is important is to communicate her message of understanding and unity.

“I was inspired by a musician called Dodie, who wrote about panic attacks and depression. I listened to a lot of Dodi when I was little. It was so wonderful to hear something so poetic and candid about these things. I wanted to do that for other people. I saw mental health issues in my friends’ lives and the extreme toll that it took on themselves and their families. I wanted to tell teenagers that they weren’t alone and that their struggles were shared.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Child and adolescent mental health services are in crisis, says report – this is what the Health Department aims to do about it

Jess is currently in grade 12 and busy studying for her Matric but it is still a priority for her to reach as many people as possible. To achieve this, in her spare time, she presents a range of motivational talks at schools around Gauteng. These include specific talks for children, high school students, neurodiverse learners and parents. 

“The first school talk I ever did was at Kingsmead — grades 10 to 12. A girl came and gave me a hug and said ‘I have never felt more seen’. I realised that by helping just one person, everything I wanted to do with the book, I had done.”

At 17, and with so much enthusiasm for life and the ability to inspire at a young age, it is impossible to predict the impact that Jess is going to have in her life. In the meantime, she has her Matric exams to study for.

Both of Jess’s books can be purchased through select bookstores, online retailers or directly from her website DM

The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.

Nominate Actionists in your circle at or email [email protected]

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

Front page P1 07 October 2023


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