A mental health crisis for young people in our neighborhoods, and how we’re responding

Children receiving tutoring from US staff

Our CEO Melissa Aase writes:

Last week, we wrapped up summer camp at 14 schools and community centers on the Lower East Side and across Brooklyn.  

Camp was often terrifically inspiring this year, and we were thrilled to welcome our young people for seven weeks of learning and laughter.  

It also provided a real opportunity to assess and begin responding to some of the significant challenges the pandemic has posed for our communities.  

As you’re no doubt aware, many months of remote and hybrid school instruction has created significant learning loss for students everywhere – but the effects are liable to be particularly harmful for young people who lack access to technology and additional tutorial support, which is a common inequity in our neighborhoods. 

As one response, this year New York City’s Summer Rising curriculum infused our summer camps with instruction in literacy, math, science, music, and other subjects, led by public school teachers.

But making up for lost instruction is just one part of the puzzle. Any effective response to this crisis will also prioritize mental health – which is why we dug deep into our program budget to fund integrated social-emotional and mental health engagement for all our camps this year.

Of course, such integration has long been one of University Settlement’s top institutional priorities, as investments in preventative, community-based, and holistic mental health care are a powerful way to build community strength.  And there’s no better place to do this kind of work than in youth programs where children and families already have trusting relationships, like ours.  

Families Thriving, our program dedicated to engaging youth, families, and community partners with mental health services and supports, led this effort at camp this year. The insights they uncovered give us a good sense of just how much work lies ahead:  

Our teams checked-in with just over 550 youth participants (kindergarten – high school) to have age-appropriate psychoeducational conversations about feelings and how they’ve been showing up in our lives.  

Engaging our participants in discussions about their emotions was just one of the many ways we sought to learn more about their lives and situations, to provide a holistic and supportive environment for them.  

We found that approximately: 

  • 15% (2nd grade – HS) feel little or no hope for the future
  • 24% of youth (K-HS) surveyed said they feel down almost all the time
  • 23% (K-HS) said they are almost always nervous or worried 

As heartbreaking as it was to hear our campers articulate such challenging emotions, it was also tremendously valuable to have these conversations, as a necessary first step toward healing.

As I mentioned, we had to work hard to identify funding for this vital project, because integrated mental health services are never supported by our City contracts for summer camp – not even this year! –nor is mental health funding often allocated to Community Based Organizations like University Settlement.

As the data demonstrates, and as we’ve heard from our neighbors, children in our communities could strongly benefit from additional social-emotional support, even with all the resilience they have shared with us throughout this prolonged crisis.  With that in mind, we will be expanding Families Thriving significantly this fall, increasing access to approachable and comprehensive mental health services for families in our communities, in partnership with schools, parents and our own youth development programs.

University Settlement is committed to engaging our neighbors holistically, no matter what comes our way – we couldn’t do it without your support.

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