While the effects of COVID-19 may have diminished for many thanks to widespread vaccine- and infection-induced immunity, the pandemic continues to have a significant systemwide impact and exacerbate social gaps. Students still experience elevated levels of pandemic-prompted emotional trauma, anxiety, isolation, and psychological distress due to schedule interruptions, remote learning, the deaths of family and friends, inequitable access to health care, and job insecurity.
Throughout history, the underprivileged, oppressed, and marginalized communities are often the most severely impacted, as our societal infrastructures and systems have shown. Those who are marginalized, and in some cases deliberately oppressed, often must navigate unjust and inequitable policies. This problem defines so many of our systems, and in an educational setting it is compounded by the pressure to learn, get good grades, avoid discipline, and graduate.
The dire ramifications of the pandemic and its effect on our young learners is tantamount. Learning loss is at an all-time high, and most students, especially those whose families can’t afford small-group or private tutoring, are behind academically. We all remember being in school: it’s not just grades and tests; it’s your social life, it’s where you see your friends, and it’s where you better understand your identity and your role in society. Being in school provides so many important identity-forging, character-building and developmentally significant opportunities. Today schools, with heightened focus on mental health and self-care, provide a safe place for youth to be vulnerable and talk openly about what they’re feeling.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “37 percent of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44 percent reported persistently feeling sad or hopeless [during 2021].” Data collected prior to the COVID-19 outbreak also indicated that mental health, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, was getting worse among high school students.
Youth who identified as LGBTQIA+, female, and BIPOC reported greater levels of poor mental health and attempted suicide than their peers. The CDC reports that “almost half of lesbian, gay, or bisexual students and nearly one-third of students who aren’t sure of their sexual identity reported having seriously considered suicide – far more than heterosexual students,” and “the number of Black students who reported attempting suicide in 2019 rose by almost 50 percent.”
Adjacent to the challenges that the pandemic posed, youth who represent as lesbian, gay, bisexual or Black are consistently battling mental, emotional, and cultural obstacles and barriers associated with understanding their identity within institutional and social constructs that constantly tell them they’re not “normal” or “not enough.” There are constant implicit messages telling LGBTQIA+, female, and BIPOC youth how they “should” be, and the way youth internalize these messages can lead to mental and emotional conflicts.
This is a call to action. We all have a role – big and small – when it comes to our community’s health, and sometimes the small things have the greatest impact. For educators and program designers, the time that students spend in their classrooms is an opportunity to create a container where students feel truly seen, find attunement, forge community, and connect with their peers and trusted adults. Time and time again, relationship and connection prove to be important to healing.
Inclusive programs and curriculum design are inherently structured to elevate and make space for all the unique identities and experiences that youth bring into the classroom. This creates a safe, positive, and affirming environment for all and directly destabilizes the power hierarchies and social constructs that have exacerbated mental health challenges for youth.
For educators, youth development workers, program facilitators, mentors, and program designers alike, here are three steps you can take today to create a more inclusive space for youth:
- Do some personal work. We are all products of the world we grew up in, and even though everyone has implicit bias, we don’t have to be agents of it. Ask yourself, what implicit messages am I imparting? What unintended impact did I have on a person or situation? Put aside your good intentions and justifications, and answer this honestly. What role do you want to play in subverting existing stereotypes? Know when to admit when you’re wrong and course correct your behavior. Assess how you can be a role model for openness and a growth mindset.
- Get to know your students. It sounds so simple, but if you do your personal work, you’ll see how often the message of “you’re not normal” is imparted to young people. Invite youth to share their pronouns; ask students how to pronounce their names and then say it correctly; learn more about what is important to them and pay attention to how it shows up in the classroom.
- Be intentional in centering student voice, choice, and experience. Ask open-ended questions to understand where youth are coming from. Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues that indicate what they need to thrive. Support youth who are navigating difficult identity moments, and let them know that being their authentic selves is their right. Integrate social and emotional learning. Build in opportunities for all learners – auditory, visual, kinesthetic, reading/writing and experiential – and allow fluidity for students to demonstrate understanding. Create opportunities for youth voice and choice. Seek feedback; check in; ask, “How was that for you?”; and role-model openness and active listening so youth feel comfortable being real with you.
For our youth, especially those who identify as LGBTQIA+, female, and BIPOC, having a space where they feel seen and uplifted is essential to effectively compensate for societal stereotypes and all the other ways they’re excluded. This is mission critical to successfully identify, assess, address, and remedy the alarming rise in youth mental health issues, both in the immediate term and in the future.
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