I understand that globally, we are all struggling. I understand that I have a responsibility to ensure the safety of those around me. I understand that rites of passage and monumental events in my life do not outweigh the lives of my community. I understand, but I’m tired of having to.
Consistently, the messaging regarding COVID-19 restrictions and updates has been aimed at the actions of youth. While communication of public health information is potentially vital, targeting youth not only unjustly blames them, but also puts the burden on them to curtail the spread of the virus. Youth are already a vulnerable population, with mental health at a historical low; the focus and tone of the message needs to shift to one of empathy, support, and acknowledgment, rather than condemnation. Public shaming of any gathering has run rampant, regardless of whether it was carried out safely with masks and distancing measures. Why are we being blamed, when, oftentimes, we are the ones sacrificing the most? Essentially, humanity craves the presence of a scapegoat, and youth have become exactly that.
Media coverage shows us as immature, selfish, and thoughtless, only caring about arbitrary things like prom night or sitting in coffee shops. That is not the case at all. These stereotypes are extremely harmful, and they have made it extremely difficult for any of us to be taken seriously. In less than six months, I will be considered an adult in the eyes of the law. What difference does such an amount of time truly make in my - or anyone else’s - ability to think and have relevant opinions? Where is the coverage on mental health consequences, or the accounts of youth making a difference in their communities? Publications have a huge impact on the public’s perception, and little attention has been paid to the consequences and adverse experiences of youth aside from superficial judgements.
To elaborate with a personal example, my high school’s soccer team recently had a game. Spectators were allowed to watch while in their cars, parked facing the field. The student body was thrilled to experience some semblance of normality and to be able to support the team. While sitting in our vehicles, alone, windows up, we were approached by our athletic director. Each student was berated for not wearing a mask and threatened to be removed if we did not wear them (again, while completely alone in our vehicles). Meanwhile, nearby families and adult couples were left alone to watch the game or casually greeted to make small talk through the window - sans masks. This was not a true concern for our safety, or an application of science. This was shaming, pure and simple.
Mixed messages from policy makers and enforcers have caused a variety of issues including mistrust, rising cases, and unnecessary blaming of others. One day, we are told it is perfectly acceptable to attend a practice for a sport while distancing and wearing masks, the next, that very sport team will be harassed for daring to meet during this time. Students are told by their school administration that their voices matter to them, and then when it comes time to make important decisions, students are left out entirely and forced to wait for an outcome that doesn't involve their needs at all. We are tired of hearing “we care” and then being disregarded, ignored, and blamed. To quote the popular musical Hamilton, we want to “be in the room where it happens” so that we can ensure our voices are truly being heard.
And what exactly is the effect of all this? A lack of communication, strong presence of shaming, and no place to turn for support? An entire generation at risk of a mental health crisis, to say the least. Empty gestures and promises unfulfilled have left us in grief, anger, and confusion. It is true that we as youth are resilient, and yet, each time we are left in the dark or ignored, that resiliency is hampered. Academic pressures are rising during a time that the majority of students are doing schooling online; once already fast-paced and difficult courses are now condensed and learned through the time of the individual, rather than through the support of the teacher and classroom. Sports and clubs have been allowed to begin, giving us hope in difficult times, only to be abruptly cancelled once again without notice or explanation. How are we meant to cope, when even meeting with a support group outdoors and masked is likely to be considered a grievance to our community?
Throughout the summer, the entirety of the Phoenix-Talent School District was waiting, week after week, for any information. We never got any. There were sporadic newsletters that some parents occasionally received, but no effort was made to inform students of what their future would look like. Two days before classes were to start, we didn’t have a schedule. Upon inquiry, students were told “you matter” and that “these unprecedented times are hard,” yet no actual guidance or information was given. We had created a senior class group chat to attempt to give information to each other whenever we stumbled across it, but as time went on, it was filled with confessions of distress and questions of whether continuing was worth it. There was a general atmosphere of mass confusion and frustration, especially with the advanced students, who were disproportionately impacted by the restrictions due to the need to cater to the majority of the school, rather than the few. Many mentioned simply getting their GED, or not even bothering to finish high school at all.
Then, the fires started.
Being homeless my senior year was not something I thought I would have to worry about, despite financial struggles and the steep downslide 2020 seems to have shoved all of our lives through. And yet, that was exactly the fear that was at the forefront of my mind, right on my first day of school. It was cancelled, of course. Half of Phoenix, my home, burnt down. I don’t think even our apathetic administration could attempt to force us into “school from home” while homeless. Ironically, the schools in the district are all still standing, but we are not allowed to be on the campus. I was one of the lucky ones, living out of the district and out of the fire’s raging path. And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder: what if it had been me?
Our hispanic community was disproportionately affected, with so much of their housing and businesses devastated. During the initial recovery and rescue efforts, everyone from local families to distant fairgrounds opened their parking lots and doors to victims of the fire. The mobilization of the community was beyond belief. And who was it that did not open their doors to help? The schools. Teachers, students, and parents were all incredibly supportive, with some sites receiving so many donations that they had to begin to turn some items away. Throughout our community’s recovery, almost all support has been seen from outside sources, community members, and youth. The school made their best effort, but in the end, they were not there for us. We were left clueless as to what our lives would be following the catastrophic damage dealt to our small town, and, during this time of fear, yet again, no information or guidance was given. Even now, months later, we are still ignored. For example, two days ago, our second quarter of school started, and I was never given a class schedule. After everything we have been through as a community, surely a quick email to a struggling student shouldn’t be so far down on the priority list?
All of our interests and passions are dismissed, any interaction with others to cope outlawed, our opinions ignored. We are striving to discover ourselves and find our identity in an environment that is not open to help us do so. The system is so far broken that it seems almost impossible that it could adapt to truly help us. What would it take to have our fears and needs be validated? For our ideas and innovative ways to continue to be considered? Even if we are not making the final decisions, is it too much to ask that the choices made that could decide our entire futures be even briefly opened to discussion, or even simply explained?
It may take time, and it may be quite a bit of work for those involved, but programs that will help youth access support and be able to interact in a time of crucial development have to be created in order for us to succeed. School is a time of exploration, a time to assert independence and prepare ourselves for our lives to come. We can do this while still respecting social distancing practices, or by moving events online. It is not hard. The students are willing to compromise and put in the effort, so why not meet us halfway and make an impact? The easiest ways to do so are to be aware of the heightened challenges many youth are facing, listen to what we are saying and experiencing, and respond to our requests for support on our terms. It is not a complicated process to feel empathy. It is not hard to open one’s heart to the struggles of a group of people.
Those in the position to do so have a collective responsibility to keep the well-being of the youth at the forefront of their decisions, not just everyone else. Insufficient support should not be normalized. There is no doubt that everyone is affected by our current situation and facing a variety of challenges. Nevertheless, that does not eliminate the need to focus on the mental health and wellbeing of our next generation. It cannot be denied that youth are our future. Treat us like it. We need your focus and support. We are isolated in a time of conflict and fear, and we are struggling. This time of our life is critical for brain development, and our experiences will shape how we cope and face challenges for the rest of our lives. The sheer impact that outreach and consideration of our views could have on our foundations as a whole is far more than many realize. Investing in the youth is, quite literally, investing in the future, so why not do it?
This does not have to be hard. Inform us. Listen to our concerns. And when you say that you care, mean it.
Kylee Linnell is a senior at Phoenix High School and a member at Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.