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Youth as an Essential Service

These are incredulous, head-shaking times. The comfortable ease that we all took for granted to travel and gather in restaurants, shopping malls, theatres, and local coffee shops has all gone out the window. Although it has only been three weeks, it seems like a lifetime ago when I met a colleague at a busy, local bistro for a casual, worry-free lunch. Ironically, as much as social media has been condemned for fostering unauthentic, impersonal connections, we are now relying on social media and smartphones to keep in touch with loved ones and pass the time. We've become virtual dining, video-conferencing, media-consuming, two-metre apart, drive-thru society. Honestly, it sounds like a bad sci-fi movie.

Despite the current negativity, I'm happy and relieved to hear positive stories about musical balcony serenades and various, random acts of kindness. But I'm concerned about the news I'm not hearing - specifically the void when it comes to our youth - especially our vulnerable youth. What is happening to them and who is looking after their needs?

Youth mental health is a growing concern in Canada. In fact, young people aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental health issues than any other age group. Recent headlines make this abundantly clear: "Suicide among 15-24 year-olds is the 2nd leading cause of death in Canada, after accidents”; “Major depression is on the rise in youth, especially teenage girls”; “Stress, anxiety plaguing Canadian youth”. These major issues do not go away or decrease during a pandemic. To make matters even worse, violence at home is also an unfortunate byproduct of COVID-19 given the direct correlation between economic instability and reported instances of violence at home. By closing schools and forcing kids to stay home, teachers and social workers are unable to detect children they suspect are suffering physical or sexual abuse at home. And sadly, in these cases, home is the last place these kids want to be.

On the upside, there is considerable evidence showing that effective means for promoting youth mental health involve social development programs, which essentially focus on mental wellbeing and positive self-perception. These programs help young people examine and reflect on who they are, and how to “connect” with others in authentic, constructive, meaningful and respectful ways. In fact, many mental health care professionals, teachers and social workers believe that mental health promotion programs encourage and increase healthy behaviours that can help prevent the onset of mental disorders and reduce risk factors that can lead to the development of mental disorders. Mental health promotion programs are seen as a valuable complement to school-based curriculums.

Typically, social development programs are delivered in person and in small groups. Face-to-face interaction - being able to observe and respond to voice intonations, facial cues, and other types of valuable body language have proven to be the most effective way to engage youth and nurture interpersonal connections. But COVID-19 has turned our world upside down. Traditional program delivery models are no longer possible now that schools and community organizations are closed. For now, providers of social development programs can no longer offer programs as they have done in the past, and they don't know when they’ll be able to resume their "normal" approach. And what exactly will the new "norm" look like?

Two things need to happen - one immediate, and the other soon after. First and foremost, program providers need to recognize that they have to stay in touch with the youth they've been working with, especially given current heightened levels of anxiety and isolation. Social media tools can now facilitate communication, and using video-conferencing, blogging, and live-streaming can keep vulnerable youth engaged...and perhaps most importantly, connected in a virtual safe and trusting space.

The second thing that needs to happen is for the government to recognize the importance of an academic and social structure as a critical necessity for a child’s growth and development. Kids simply can’t stay at home for months on end, separated from their friends and cut-off from all activities. Schools need to stay open or reopen soon, on a transitional, gradual basis- with safety measures in place, and protective protocols like social distancing, smaller group sizes, and mask-wearing strictly enforced.

The government already outlined what it considers as essential services during the initial wave of this crisis, and sadly no mention was made about our youth. School representatives are grappling with various options in trying to determine how best to deal with the rest of the academic year. But as a society, how do we wish to collectively deal with our vulnerable youth during these uncertain times? What steps are we taking to help our youth deal with their isolation and fears about the future? As a society, are we valuing our youth…or are we panicking, running for cover, and abandoning them?

Once the weather gets warmer, small outdoor get-togethers and other creative initiatives can potentially help youth overcome their fears, apprehensions and insecurities, and guide them towards becoming the fine leaders they wish, but we know, they can be.

Despite the difficult circumstances, we need to value our youth and believe in their development as an essential service. If we don’t, then who will?

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