As the pandemic eases, it’s time to focus on the mental well-being of young people
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Kini-Ana Tinkham is the Executive Director of the Maine Resilience Building Network. Leslie Forstadt is the chair of the network’s board of directors.
These are hopeful days in Maine. Immunization rates are increasing. Fewer people contract COVID-19 and death rates are falling. Businesses are opening their doors and tourists are flocking to the state. And more federal money is on its way to help repair the damage caused by the pandemic.
Repair is needed. But when it comes to the pandemic’s toll on Mainers’ mental health, it’s crucial to include prevention in the recovery plan. Without it, we perpetuate the cycle of repair – continually dealing with mental and physical health issues after they occur. We need systems and policies that prioritize primary prevention.
Even before the isolation and disconnection caused by the pandemic, young Mainers
were suffering. Maine had the highest rate of children with diagnosed anxiety disorders and the third highest rate of children with diagnosed depression. Then the pandemic set in, causing changes in routines, interruptions in learning, distance from friends and peers, and loss of safety for many young people and families in Maine.
Social isolation and loneliness contribute to health problems and even early mortality, rivaling more well-known risk factors such as smoking and obesity. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes that youth connectivity as an important protective factor for health and well-being. However, not all young people in Maine feel connected or supported in their community.
the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey quantify the problem by asking middle and high school students if they think they matter to their community. In 2019, well before the pandemic, 41% of college students and 43 percent high school students said they felt they didn’t matter to their community. Without this sense of connection, they are missing a key protective factor that could help reduce their risk for anxiety, depression, suicide, and other illnesses of despair.
Funding for the US rescue plan entering Maine provides a unique opportunity to focus special attention on upstream approaches to create protective factors such as matter. We must not pass up this chance to build the resilience of our young people. In additional monetary investments in training, education and policy development, individuals, organizations and systems must invest time, energy and attention to ensure that every young person in Maine understands. how much he means to his community.
It should not be a choice between remedy and prevention. By strengthening existing services and supporting school-based mental health services, Maine can help those who are currently facing challenges. At the same time, we can support community resilience so that young people thrive and become an important part of our communities and our workforce.
And if you are wondering what support young people need, ask them. Make it an authentic part of the process. It’s a way of showing them that they matter.