Are the Kids Alright?
One of the volunteer organizations that I dedicate time to runs a program for middle- and high-school students. The program consists of a series of workshops and informal sessions designed specifically to provide young boys with information, skills, and a place for thoughtful discussion around leadership, self-esteem, and positive sexual health. Because these sessions are often held on Saturdays during the school year and require both the volunteers and the young people to show up early on the weekend, they can be sparsely attended.
Hence, I recently made an extra effort to go.
The Saturday session I attended had just 10 student participants in grades six through eight. I was impressed with all of them. The boys were actively engaged. They connected with the workshop presenters and other adult volunteers who were helping to move the day along, asked great questions, listened to each other, and displayed real teamwork and collaboration when they were broken up into small groups for activities. It was the kind of scene you would hope to see. But unfortunately, some of the things I heard that day were disturbing and heartbreaking.
During one of the workshops about positive sexual health and behaviors, the boys were broken into small groups. They were given posterboard and directed to write a list of where they got their information about sex and sexual health. When they reported back to the larger group, we saw that the top-ranked source for where they got their information was social media and influencers.
As I heard them report out, I immediately started thinking about how the day before I had watched a viral video of a man who spewed a lot of inaccurate and harmful opinions disguised as truths about relationships and sex. It pained me to think this kind of guy could be someone shaping their views about something so important.
Thankfully, the next workshop about some basic dos and don’ts, myths versus realities, was done by a local medical doctor who could provide facts. The boys seemed to pay attention to him, and he offered them additional resources. Sexual health is about both the physical and emotional health of a person and with teenagers we must ensure they have all the support they need to develop healthy habits and identities.
Later in the day there was a conversation about mental health and wellbeing. The speaker asked the boys to raise their hands if they knew anyone who had thought about committing suicide or harming themselves in the last 12 months. I was shocked when five boys raised their hands. That was half of the students there.
Our nation is experiencing a youth mental health crisis. Data from the most recent Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indicated that, “37% of high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic and 44% felt persistently sad or hopeless during the previous 12 months.”
The Trevor Project’s 2023 US National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People lifts the experiences and voices of 28,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 24. The report found that “41% of LGBTQ young people seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year—and young people who are transgender, nonbinary, and/or people of color reported higher rates than their peers.” Further, the report also found that “56% of LGBTQ young people who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to get it.”
We must do better. As parents, aunts, uncles, and trusted neighbors, we must not only be open to talking to young people, we must be open to listening. We must be willing to stay in the fight to create safe and healthy communities for ourselves and those who will come after us. We also have to come up with systemic solutions to increase and diversify the mental healthcare workforce and address the challenges of financial access to care. As Harvey Milk once said, “All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential.” ▼
Clarence J. Fluker is a public affairs and social impact strategist. Since 2008, he’s also been a contributing writer for Swerv, a lifestyle periodical celebrating African American LGBTQ+ culture and community. Follow him on Twitter: @CJFluker or Instagram: @Mr_CJFluker.