It’s that time of year again when most of us can’t wait to take a break from everyday life and enjoy the company of our friends and family. The holiday season is one of my favorite times of the year and it’s my birthday month too! Like most people, my family and friends are busy decorating our homes and finding the recipe box or book that holds all our special holiday recipes like Caribbean rum cake to mincemeat cookies. Although this time of year brings lots of festive joy and cheer it also can be a hard time especially if the holidays may feel lonely if we don’t have loved ones to spend time with or if there are interpersonal conflicts that can make spending time with family unbearable. Also, this year has been quite tough to bear especially for young people. I know because the young people I work with at Peer Health Exchange and who are a part of my community have expressed this — sharing they are still grieving the loss of a loved one or struggling to find affordable mental health services.
It has been a tough year for all of us, but young people have felt the brunt of it, from tackling changes like the fall of Roe v. Wade to seeing violence in colleges that they aspire to attend to a never-ending pandemic and the United States consistent inability to address gun violence and white supremacy. It’s no surprise that a recently published report in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science indicated that young people’s brains aged faster than usual due to the stress and isolation of the pandemic.
The study, which measured teen’s brain age after about ten months of lockdown, showed that their brains had aged at least three years in that time frame. Young people know what they need and repeatedly stress the importance of more mental health supports during our group meetings. Many young people continue to share that they struggle with stress, anxiety, depression, grief and loneliness. Continuing to deal with the stress of family members losing jobs, the weight of taking on additional responsibilities outside of school, having COVID and or RSV, losing loved ones either to COVID or violence adds an emotional weight to anyone. Not to mention LGBTQIA+ youth continue to violently lose their safe spaces and experience erasure either from exclusionary legislation or violence targeted against their community.
The weight of the world continues to be heavy and uncertain. Young people are sharing that it’s hard to make friends, that their relationships have changed with family members, and most importantly, they don’t always know who to reach out to as they try to figure out how to navigate life especially when our society continues to be so polarized, divided and at odds. As adults, it is time for us to listen to young people about the world they want to live in. To listen to young people’s dreams of what beauty could exist in the world if we actually practiced inclusivity and saw equity not as a threat but a starting place so everyone can have access to what they need to thrive, live and love in this world without threat of harm or violence. One thing I learn all the time from young people is that they are resilient, imaginative and although they are struggling, they are making their way even against all odds. As adults, let’s make it easier for young people and not only be there for them but invite them to have power and be the ones making decisions on a local to national level on issues that they care about and issues which it is paramount that they have a voice in.
We can all play a part in supporting the young people in our lives. We can show up in a way that invites them to share and listen without fear of judgment. We can admit when we don’t have the answers and share what worked for us when we faced similar challenges. We can remind them that we’re there for them regardless of what they’re facing, and be there every step of the way.
This holiday season and for the new year, lets actively make it easier for young people to live in healthy communities where they feel seen, heard, valued and appreciated. We can do this through actively listening, supporting their efforts to create their own safe spaces, sharing inclusive vetted health resources and creating more leadership opportunities for young people to have room at the table to advocate for their needs and wants. Honestly, this is the best gift you could give anyone, especially young people who deserve to feel and be seen as powerful too.
Let’s give them the gift of listening, safe spaces, leading with empathy and showing up when they need us. This is the gift young people need this holiday season, and I hope you will give it at a time when they need it most and always.
Krissy Leahy, MPH (she/her/ella) is the Director of Remote Programming at Peer Health Exchange where she works with communities to strengthen and increase access to health education programs in high schools throughout the United States. Krissy is also a health educator, reproductive justice advocate and connects to her passion for storytelling through community-led projects including sexspeaks and the Black Breath Project.