It may be impossible to overstate how Hailey Dickson’s life has changed from what it was only six years ago.
Starting in 2013 when she was a junior at Desert Vista High School, the Ahwatukee woman began suffering spasms that left her disoriented and in intense muscle pain around her neck and head. They became so severe that she had to drop out of school for almost her whole senior year.
Up until then, Dickson had been a model student.
She was a member of Desert Vista’s marching band and wind ensemble, a volunteer at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center as well as participant in Health Occupations Students of America and the Student Anti-Genocide Coalition. During a summer trip to Nepal, she taught kindergarten children and volunteered at a hospital.
As recounted in a story aired last month by the British Broadcasting Corp., Dickson had been felled by a Chiari malformation. The anatomical condition occurs when adolescent growth shapes the skull in a way that it pushes the lower part of the brain that controls balance into the space where the spinal cord passes through.
Experts quoted by the BBC say that the condition afflicts an estimated three million Americans and for Hailey, the progression of the malformation gave her nearly constant hiccups and caused her to lose temporary control of the muscles used for speech.
“I felt like I could feel everyone staring at me because I had these uncontrollable movements and I just ran out of there and cried,” she told the BBC. “There were the physical elements, but there was also the mental element of being a teenage girl and just not wanting anyone to see me like that.”
Today, Dickson, 22, is a University of Arizona graduate living in India through a Fulbright Research Grant and researching mental health among young people of India — a topic all but taboo in that country.
The road was not an easy one as she grew from a temporary high school dropout wracked by physical and emotional pain to a passionate researcher documenting the emotional and mental distress of countless young people in a foreign land.
“It was so difficult to transition from being a ‘sick’ person to a normal girl again,” she told the BBC. “While all my friends had spent the last year applying to colleges and planning their futures, I had written off all hopes for my dreams and wasn’t prepared for anything.”
And yet, the daughter of Ken and Beth Dickson of Ahwatukee triumphed over her dark period.
Even though she wasn’t in high school for a good part of her senior year, she earned a coveted Flinn Scholarship, awarded to fewer than two dozen Arizona seniors annually.
At UA, she got involved with Model United Nations, became the opinion editorials desk chief for the student newspaper, worked as a health-advocacy intern for the International Rescue Committee coordinating health care for refugees, cofounded the university chapter of No Lost Generation, a nonprofit that brings humanitarian aid to children and teens in war-torn Syria and Iraq; volunteered at Tu Nidito, a nonprofit that provides grief counseling for children; and worked as a research intern with the UA Department of Bioanthropology to study breastfeeding practices in southern Arizona.
She graduated in 2018 with two degrees — a BA in global health and development with a South Asia regional emphasis and a BS in biological anthropology and a minor in public health.
UA also gave her its Global Studies Outstanding Senior Award.
She is working with a Mumbai-based media company called Yuvaa, that is dedicated to empowering young Indian people by “creating socially conscious and representative content by and for the diverse youth of India.”
Her team won a United Nations Goalkeeps Youth Action Accelerator Award to make a documentary.
“I am traveling across 30 cities and over 100 colleges and nonprofits to film a documentary for the United Nations about youth mental health,” she told AFN, noting the UN award “is given to 30 youth-led projects around the world which support youth-led social change and sustainability.”
Nor is India all that unfamiliar to Dickson. She had gone there for a year in 2016 on a Boren Scholarship, a Defense Department award that sends undergraduates to study languages less frequently taught in the U.S.
Dickson is conducting workshops and interviews with Indian teens “about their lives and mental health struggles.”
“I have so far met, interviewed and filmed hundreds of youth to capture their stories,” she said.
“As someone who has personally faced struggles when it comes to mental health, I know how deeply it can affect a person’s life, relationships with others and society as a whole,” she told AFN.
While at UA, she studied communicable diseases like HIV or tuberculosis. But she believes “mental health is emerging as one of the huge health issues of our generation.
“And unlike communicable diseases, there is much less public discourse (especially on a policy-level) about how to prevent mental illnesses or at least start conversations about them,” she added. “I believe that giving a platform for youth to express themselves about taboo issues will be one of the most important catalysts toward social change.”
After spending the first three months of her Fulbright Scholarship program last summer studying marathi, the official language of the state of Maharashtra, she began her research project based in Mumbai.
That metro area of more than 20 million residents is her base as she travels across the Indian continent as part of her project.
She sees Yuvaa as a natural vehicle for her project, explaining, “I was gripped by the way the platform utilizes storytelling and popular media to address taboo topics and start important conversations about overlooked topics like mental health.”
Through what she calls her “roadshow” to dozens of Indian cities, she said, “We created a plan to film a documentary throughout the entire process that would uplift these stories and shed new light on the realities.”
And the realities she sees there in some ways reflect the realities among teens in America.
“Mental health started emerging as one of the most prevalent issues among India’s youth, and one that is especially under-discussed through popular media, despite its imminent importance,” she said.
Dickson has found that the stories she is collecting are “cathartic both to the speaker and to the listeners, who may begin to feel like they are less alone in their struggles with mental health.”
“We hope that the documentary will shed light on a taboo topic, challenge misconceptions about youth and empower both the subjects and the people that watch it. We also hope that the documentary will spark conversations about mental health, and that policy-makers and change-makers will see the documentary and become better-informed about how to best serve youth,” she added.
She works in a country that she has held an endless fascination for — so much so that she mastered Hindi, the predominant language in a country with 22 major languages, and even taught it in Wisconsin during a summer program.
“I just wanted to experience a place both geographically and culturally very far from my own home. That transformative experience solidified my interest in global health and sparked my desire to return to the region,” Dickson told the Flinn Foundation last year, adding:
“I never cease to be amazed by India’s diversity…India and its people are full of paradoxes and juxtapositions I find endlessly fascinating. This complexity invigorates me and draws me to learn more through my travels.”
Despite the familiarity she gained from her early visits to India, she said “it was a struggle to adapt to the fast pace of life in Mumbai at first.”
“Working as an independent researcher presents its own challenges,” she added. “You have to be very proactive to find opportunities for collaboration, and you have to be patient enough to navigate the challenges that arise from doing so in a new country.
“However, as soon as I started working on this project, I made the best of friends with my colleagues. My social support network here has been the most important factor in helping me both in my work and happiness.
“I’ve had a huge confidence boost since working here, and with that I am truly happy and fulfilled living here. I love the endless opportunities that present themselves in India.”
Later this year, Dickson will begin working on her masters degree while still working with Yuvaa.
Her long-term career goal is to work with the United Nations, utilizing the experience she is gaining in media, particularly digital, “to promote human rights and a sustainable development agenda.”
“I never had envisioned working in the media field,” she added. “But now I am really interested in studying both how current media shapes development, and how socially conscious media can be utilized to drive social change.”
“I find it really enriching to be pursuing a career that combines my proclivities for public health and policy with both my international interests and my creative side.”
She said her work so far “has already exposed me to a lifetime worth of insight and perspectives that I will carry with me throughout my career.”
“All large-scale policy efforts should be rooted in research and reflective of on-ground realities,” she added. “I’ve now encountered literally hundreds of stories and perspectives that will shape my work and make sure it best serves the needs of young people.”
Her documentary will eventually be aired on YouTube because she wants the widest possible exposure for the hundreds of eye-opening and heart-rending tales she has recorded.
“A lot of people criticize Gen Z as being self-absorbed or disconnected, thanks to the role of technology in their lives,” she said.
“However, from listening and analyzing hundreds of their stories, we can see that the exact opposite is true. The most common theme by far was family, and the driving hope was a desire for connection. Everyone just wants to be understood and to be better understood by others.”
She also has discovered “the power of storytelling in and of itself.”
“No matter the topics they were speaking about, whether mental health or societal issues, students were visibly transformed by the opportunity to safely express themselves,” she said.
“I think a project like this has the potential to create a huge butterfly effect.”