As we recognized Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Awareness Day at the end of April and move into Mental Health Awareness Month in May, I have been reflecting on children’s mental health and well-being. The headlines are everywhere about “the crisis in children’s mental health”, particularly in the context of the pandemic. While the headlines are drawing needed attention to our children’s overall health, we know that there was a rising crisis well before COVID-19 and that the pandemic is certainly not the only contributor to the current state of mental health for young people.
In an effort to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on youth mental health in Rochester and Monroe County, The
Third ACE Project is leveraging the collective expertise of youth, caregivers, families, local community-based organizations and community leaders to collect and analyze data while also exploring potential solutions. The project is exploring COVID-19 pandemic as a third “ACE,” while also recognizing the impact of the “pair of ACEs” (Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adverse Community Environments). What we have heard clearly from young people and caregivers is that the challenges they face run deep, are systemic, and have only been exacerbated by the experiences of the past three years.
The collaborative initiative, which has centered youth and family voice, has created a
3rd ACE Iceberg Model which illustrates the deep layers that lay below the surface of symptoms of mental health challenges which rise to the surface and are most visible. Youth shared that traumatic and stressful events, including but not limited to the pandemic, racism, bias, prejudice, racialized violence and school/community violence, have been cumulative and without relief. The pandemic contributed to a pattern of lost opportunities, connection, and for some the lives of loved ones. These losses limited young people’s ability to develop socialization and communication skills and form those supportive, nurturing relationship that can buffer stress. Many youth lost their safety net, routines and structures, exacerbating the sense of emotional isolation and disconnection pre-dated the pandemic. As we have made the shift back to “normal,” resuming a more active pace of life, there has been an utter lack of space for healing and acknowledgment of the need recover. Instead, messaging has overly reinforced a message about resiliency or “bouncing back” while minimizing systemic harm, placing additional burden on those most marginalized.
Awareness of ACEs, toxic stress and mental health is a solid start and it is also far from sufficient to lead to transformational change. With the understanding of root cause informed by the individuals most impacted, comes opportunity for true healing. Health and well-being are not only impacted by what has happened to you but who was there for you. When young people have safe stable nurturing relationships in which they have a felt sense of mattering, they can thrive even in the face of adversity.
No matter your role, everyone can promote relationship and connection with the young people in your life – as a parent, caregiver, neighbor, teacher, coach, professional or community member. Four relationship builders that you can do today are:
- Slow down – pause and reflect on your own state of well-being. It is difficult to fully show up for someone else when you are depleted. Make time to prioritize your health.
- Be curious – ask open-ended questions. Ask the young people in your life about their dreams, hopes, fears, concerns, ideas, and solutions. Young people are the experts on their experience and best positioned to educate us as to what matters most to them.
- Listen – hold safe, nonjudgmental space for youth to openly share what is on their mind. This is a tremendous gift. Many young people have shared with me the desire to just be heard without a need for the listener to solve a problem. If they are seeking advice, they will ask.
- Be present – put down the phone, turn off the computer and let go of other mental distractions. Allow yourself to be fully in the moment and demonstrate that you are giving your full attention. The quality of time spent together is more important than the quantity. Your presence, more than words, conveys to a young person that they matter.