Sunday Reflections: Yes Our Kids are in a Mental Health Crisis, but It’s Not Because the Schools are Closed
I am not a school librarian, but a public one. Although over the past years I have worked closely with many teachers and school librarians, at the end of the day I still only have an outsiders perspective of what happens in our public schools. I am also a parent; if you are a regular TLT reader you have watched me raise both an almost 13 year old with Dyslexia and a 12th grader with Anxiety/Depression. I share all these disclaimers with you because I want to talk about public education. More specifically, I want to talk about public education and our children.
Right now, there is a huge push to re-open our public schools with the caveat that our children are perfectly safe from the virus and that our kids are in a mental health crisis that necessitates this. This is not entirley true.
Let me be clear: our kids are in a mental health crisis. They actually have been for quite some time, we talk about it here all the time and have been for far longer than just the past year of this pandemic. Here we are devoting an entire year to discussing the youth mental health crisis in 2015 – a full five years before the pandemic. Press reports on the growing levels of anxiety in our teens are not new and they are not unique to the pandemic. The pandemic surely isn’t helping, but one could argue it’s not just the pandemic. The politics, the impending climate change crisis, and watching the adults around you implode in fits of rage, selfishness, and greed while hearing their willingness to sacrifice each other including you, the youth of our day, to the altar of capitalism certainly isn’t helping.
Neither is watching your loved ones, your family, your friends, and members of your community get sick and die. It was almost a year ago to this day that my 12-year-old learned that her favorite teacher had died. He gave of his time freely to host her favorite club and she had just met with him and her peers after dark one night to gaze at the stars through a telescope he had written a grant for. She then went on spring break and while on break the world shut down and a few weeks later this young, thriving teacher that she adored was no longer with us. It was quick. It was confusing. It was devastating.
The grandfather that she loves is now permanently on an oxygen machine he has to carry with him 24/7. The local pastor and his wife died, and yet people of faith – people that taught her Sunday school class and told them to follow rules and love one another and to give freely to make the world a better place – refuse to wear a mask and she struggles to understand how people can be so selfish when the cost is so high. And the cost is high. Not just the economics, the very real emotional cost of the rising hatred and selfishness and greed. Over half a million people have died and many more will have life long health issues.
She does, in fact, go to school face to face. She has all year. Going virtual was an option for her but we made the very difficult decision to send her in person because of her dyslexia. This is not a decision that we made lightly or that sits easy with us. Every day I drop my child off at school and worry that she will get sick or bring the illness into our home. The decision was made in part because the school had reported that only 30% of the kids were coming back face to face and they were doing pod learning to keep the kids safe. So though she is in the school building, it looks nothing like traditional school and she is with a small cohort of the same kids day in and day out. They even eat lunch together in the classroom. So although it is not as safe as virtual, it’s safer than traditional school. And it presents its own challenges, including not getting to be with your friends in school and having to constantly be with the same kids, who sometimes don’t get along. It turns out there are no good answers in a pandemic year.
The local football coach died. Two 12-year old girls on her soccer team can not come back because they had Covid and now have permanent heart damage. Teachers disappear for weeks because they get Covid and sometimes, they don’t come back the same. Her friends parents, grandparents and siblings died. And now she reads online that everyone wants the schools to repopen fully because kids aren’t at risk. Except she knows that is a lie, because it is not the reality that she is living in. She knows kids are at risk because she has seen it.
She does worry about her own health. She loves playing soccer and doesn’t want to get sick and no longer be able to play like her team mates. But she also doesn’t want to carry the burden of knowing that she made a teacher or a beloved family member sick, or dead. She wonders if her beloved teacher that died a year ago got sick at school. She wonders if she will make her dad, who has diminished lung capacity, sick. She understands that not dead doesn’t mean the same thing as recovered because she has seen it all around her.
And like every kid her age, she see what the adults around her are doing and saying. She sees the adults at school who won’t wear a mask even though their fellow teacher died. She can sees the Tik Toks and read the headlines of people who are willing to sacrifice her and kids like her because they want . . . what? To go shopping? To go to a bar? Some free time? And she internalizes these messages and what they mean to kids like her.
And can you imagine being a high school senior and waiting in line to vote for the first time only to be told that your vote might not count? That people from other states were trying to have those votes thrown out? To hearing elected officials you are supposed to trust and respect lie about election fraud while evidence came out that this was the safest, most secure election in American history and then watching an all out assault on the Captiol on social media? To reading reports of people trying to assassinate the Vice President and seeing an actual noose set up at our nation’s capitol? It must be so discouraging and distressing to try and navigate these turbulent political times. And to trust the adults who are trying now to take away your right to vote as you just enter into our nation’s democracy. It’s not just the pandemic that is causing a crisis in our youth, and we do them a disservice when we act as if it is. These are dark political days and teens are very engaged and informed.
And let us not forget the kids of color who have to face the racism in our world. And the kids in poverty who go to bed hungry every night. And the kids with disabilities who have to fight for accomodations. And the trans or otherwise LGBTQIA+ kids who have to navigate a world in which adults are passing laws that harm them and debating whether or not they should even get to exist. And the kids whose families are forever changed because of illness or death. There are a complex web of problems our kids are facing and we keep talking around and about them with little actual consideration for them and their well being. Or we use them as political pawns in the discussions about our own.
And I see the hearts of the kids around me hardening against us. They have seen that we have turned our backs on every thing that we have taught them. They have witnessed our depravity and selfishness and lawlessness in the face of a truly horrific global health crisis. I fear that this generation of kids will hate us and we will have earned it.
So yes, our kids are in a mental health crisis. But I don’t think it’s because they haven’t been in school. I think it is far bigger than that. I believe it is because they have seen the truth of who we are as the human race, as Americans, and what – and who – we are willing to sacrifice and it has caused them to weep and wail and mourn in that truth. Because we have been liars and hypocrites. We told them to love, to obey, to tell the truth, and respect others and then we did the exact opposite. We have betrayed their trust. We have broken the world and in doing so, we have broken an entire generation of kids.
Re-opening the schools isn’t going to solve the mental health crisis our kids are facing, because closing the schools isn’t what caused it. Breaking the world, breaking their trust is. And the only way to fix it is to address the very real problems we have caused and rebuild the world and our kids trust in us. We must address systemic racism, systemic poverty, systemic oppression, and the global climate crisis. We need to make our schools safer. We need to make our communities safer. And we need to truly live a life of peace, justice and mercy. We need to be honest with ourselves and each other. We need to change our politics, bringing back ethics and honesty. We need to empower our youth and each other. We need to be what we asked our kids to be so that they can have faith in us and have faith in their future.
We need to give them hope. Not just hope in themselves, but hope in us as adults. Hope that they will, in fact, still have a world to inherit when they are adults. Hope that they we won’t burn it all to the ground before they get a chance to be the people we told them they could be, needed to be.
I’m glad that we’re talking about the mental health of our kids. We’ve needed to be for a very long time. We’re talking about it all wrong, but talking about it is a start. Now it’s time to ask them what’s happening, why, and what they need. We can’t leave them out of the discussion, which is what we so often do. But most importantly, they can’t be something we’re willing to sacrifice to save our economy, because that will leave scars that will never heal. Our kids are not a sacrifice any of us should be willing to make to go back to the system that was, it wasn’t working before, our kids were already in crisis. We need something new and different that works for everyone, including our kids.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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