Youth-Nex recently hosted their 8th conference entitled Pass the Mic: Amplifying Youth Voice & Agency, co-chaired by Drs. Wintre Foxworth Johnson and Nancy Deutsch.
In this Pass the Mic blog series, we are highlighting each of the sessions from the conference and in future posts including youth voices to summarize and reflect on what was discussed.
In this first blog, co-chair Dr. Johnson introduces this blog series and shares our first session on “Youth Voice and Agency in the 21st Century: A Dialogue Among Young People.”
Adults often talk about youth as “the future.” That, however, is a partial truth. Many of the issues that adults debate and the policies that we create affect young people’s day-to-day lives, arguably more than they do our own. Young people are the present as much as they are the future, and we need their ideas. They should have a say in how we think about social issues and what we do to address them.
At Youth-Nex, we take a strengths-based approach to youth development. And every day we are amazed by the ingenuity, energy, and hope of youth as they tackle the problems they see in the world. Part of being an adolescent is forming an identity that includes a sense of meaning and purpose. We see young people enacting that meaning and purpose, often within systems that do not value their voices or expertise.
Youth voice and agency were central to the recent convening. Throughout Youth-Nex’s 8th conference, we heard from young people and adults who are actively working to amplify the voices of youth across the systems that shape their lives. Our goal is for everyone to approach the issues affecting youth with new eyes because they are complex and require all our experiences, expertise, and ideas. We want adults to not only see but also engage youth as true partners in working for change!
The first session of the conference grounded us in youth voices. This panel was moderated by Zyahna Bryant, an activist and community organizer, and included all youth panelists. We asked: Are young people ready to lead and if so, in what ways? How do we center and uplift youth voices in the 21st century? What are action-oriented steps to support youth? Listen to this session and learn more.
In this blog series, we will share each of the sessions from the conference with an accompanying young person’s perspective who attended the conference. Listen to these sessions, hear these youth voices, and consider how you can “pass the mic”!
Author Bio: Dr. Wintre Foxworth Johnson’s scholarship lies at the nexus of sociocultural literacy studies, critical race scholarship, and critical pedagogies for and with young children. Her research has two primary aims: to examine the relationship between literacy teaching and learning in race-conscious and social justice-oriented elementary educational contexts; to investigate the sociopolitical development of children from historically marginalized communities, with a particular focus on Black children’s educational experiences, racial awareness, and experiential knowledge.
Research suggests there is a potential increase in child adversity exposures, or trauma, post-pandemic.
In general, mentoring relationships may help because they can lead to greater self-esteem, stronger connections to school, peers, and family, lower levels of depression, and less involvement in bullying and fighting (January is Mentoring Month).
Mentoring relationships involving children with past traumatic experiences need to be trauma-informed and last for at least a year.
On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have begun to focus on the pediatric mental health crisis. According to researchers, this crisis has been years in the making but was exacerbated by stressors related to the pandemic1. One primary concern within the pediatric mental health crisis is child traumatic experiences.
Defining & Measuring Traumatic Experiences
Many definitions describe traumatic experiences, but the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) definition is the most inclusive and outlines how traumatic experiences can impact an individual. The SAMHSA defines individual trauma as resulting “from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is expressed by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”2 Children with traumatic experiences are more likely to disengage from school3, repeat a grade4, drop out of school5, be involved in the juvenile justice system6, and have a decreased IQ and reading achievement7.
A common tool for measuring traumatic experiences, used by trained professionals, is the ACE (adverse childhood experience) questionnaire8, which scores an individual on the number of different adverse experiences an individual has during childhood. These experiences are based on two categories:
Abuse (i.e., psychological, physical, or sexual), and
Household dysfunction (i.e., substance abuse, mental illness, mother’s abuse, criminal behavior in the household).
Here are some additional resources if you are interested in learning more about the ACE questionnaire and childhood traumatic experiences.
Increases in Trauma Experiences & How Mentoring Can Help
In 2019, before the pandemic, the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative found that approximately one in five children had at least one ACE9. A post-pandemic study of high school students found that 73.1% of participants reported at least one ACE during the COVID-19 pandemic10. This large number of child adversity exposures calls for mechanisms that can support children with traumatic experiences.
One such mechanism is mentoring. Mentored students have been shown to have higher levels of self-esteem, a more positive and stronger connection to school, peers, and family, lower levels of depression, and less involvement in bullying and fighting11,12.
Through the consistent support of a nurturing mentor, an individual with past trauma could begin to see themselves more positively and may begin to realize that positive relationships are possible.
However, not all mentoring relationships are equally effective. The length of the mentoring relationship is very important. Specifically, mentoring relationships that last longer than one year are most effective for all children regardless of their background and previous experiences13,14. However, children with a high ACE score are more likely to have a mentoring relationship end prematurely15,16. Mentoring children with traumatic experiences can be challenging, and mentors can feel ill-equipped to handle these challenges without proper training and support. Trauma-informed training for mentors could mitigate these challenges and better support mentoring relationships.
Trauma-informed programs are meant to serve all individuals by acknowledging the impact of trauma, recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma, and responding to trauma using trauma-sensitive practices and policies while actively seeking to avoid re-traumatization2. Developing a trauma-informed mentorship program could help support mentoring relationships and lead to fewer premature relationship closures.
Other Forms of Mentoring
Natural occurring mentoring relationships are formed organically within a child’s preexisting community. Some examples of natural mentors are family members, teachers, coaches, and neighbors. Naturally formed mentoring relationships have been associated with positive social, emotional, and academic development in children17. These naturally formed relationships also tend to last longer18,19. Still, these mentoring relationships often lack formal training. As a teacher, I was a natural mentor to a variety of students with different experiences, challenges, and needs. This proved challenging not only because it was an additional role, but because I was not trained in trauma-informed practices or mentoring strategies. I often felt like I was doing my best while wondering if my best was enough. Trauma-informed training could be offered to a wider audience to help support individuals in these non-traditional mentoring roles, thereby supporting more adults and students alike. If you are interested in learning more about trauma-informed practices, here are a few educator resources:
Peer mentoring also supports children with traumatic experiences. A recent study found that older children with traumatic experiences were eager and willing to mentor peers with traumatic experiences20. These relationships benefited both the mentor and mentee by providing opportunities for each pair to rewrite their story and construct a more positive self-identity. Allowing peers to mentor one another could be a very effective mentoring strategy, particularly for communities with limited resources and access to formal mentoring programs. However, before implementing a peer mentoring program, it is important to acknowledge that these student mentors must be intentionally supported and protected. The following are some recommendations for how to support your student mentors:
Become trained on how to train students for peer mentoring programs.
Develop a student mentor training process that is trauma-informed.
Make sure students are interested in acting as peer mentors. Just because a student has exposure to a traumatic experience does not mean they will always want to support another student through mentoring.
Learn how to identify signs of retraumatization and work to not retrigger students.
Make sure adult supervision is always present.
More investigation is needed to determine the most successful conditions, but trauma-informed mentoring relationships (i.e., formal, natural, peer-to-peer) could be a strong mechanism for supporting children with traumatic experiences. Additionally, several factors can buffer against the negative consequences of ACEs and bolster resilience. The following are some resources that detail these factors:
Author Bio: Dana M. Sox is a graduate student in the Educational Psychology and Applied Developmental Science Ph.D. Program at the University of Virginia. Before beginning her studies, she was a high school educator for six years. Her research interests are in mechanisms that help support students with traumatic experiences and the adults that interact with these students (e.g., teachers, coaches, after-school educators, mentors, etc.). Dana hopes that this research will have a broader impact on students, educators, families, and communities.
Author Bio: Helen Min is a Ph.D. candidate and Dean’s Fellow in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development (UVA) with a research focus on evaluating trauma-sensitive pedagogy, understanding the impact of stress on teacher well-being, and assessing the extent of vicarious trauma on teachers. She is the recipient of several grants for her research and service at UVA, including Dean’s Research and Development Fund Innovative, Developmental, Exploratory Awards (IDEA), Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Small Grant, and Inclusive Excellence Grant. Before starting her Ph.D. program, she taught for six years in Baltimore, MD, Osaka, Japan, and Cairo, Egypt. She received her B.A. from the University of California Davis and her M.S.Ed. from Johns Hopkins University.
By: Kessler (11th grader) & Anna (10th grader) from Empowered Players (EP) and members of EP’s Teen Arts Board (TAB).
This blog post is the second of four in a Youth Performing Arts Series by teens involved in the performing arts. For more posts, please visit our blog.
Empowered Players (EP) is a Fluvanna-based non-profit in VA designed to make a difference in the community through the arts. Their mission is to uplift the human spirit through access to quality arts experiences, youth empowerment, and community service through free & accessible K-12 theatre education and programming.
In this Youth Performing Arts Series, youth involved with EP will share more about their experiences and perspectives engaging in the performing arts.
In this second of four blog posts, Kessler and Anna debunk a few theatre myths and stereotypes that haunt the industry.
There are a lot of stereotypes about theatre kids. Some say we’re anti-social coffee addicts who can’t go anywhere or do anything because “we have rehearsal.” Some say we’re Hamilton obsessed geeks who speak only in showtunes and Shakespeare. Although they might have a point, theatre is much more than the stereotypes.
Theatre, especially Empowered Players, helps budding actors and actresses in many ways. It can improve public speaking ability, increase creative thinking skills, and includes people from many different backgrounds and walks of life through the diverse roles available. And while some theatre stereotypes are true (yes, we are that loud; yes, some of us are that obsessed with Hamilton or Dear Evan Hansen), many are not. This blog debunks a few myths that have permeated the industry for years, especially for youth.
Mythbusting the “Theatre Kid”
To begin with, many people are afraid of theatre because of how it is portrayed in the media. Television and movie producers love to show theatre as something that is filled with gossip and drama, or mean girls and nerds. This does not give theatre a chance! It is an unique art that allows actors to become different people for a few hours a week while boosting beneficial skills such as confidence and public speaking. The myriad perks of theatre are overshadowed by the harmful stereotypes that continue to circulate both within and outside the community. Let’s lay these myths to rest and prove that theatre is truly for everyone!
Debunk: “I can’t, I have rehearsal”
One of the major drawbacks that can dissuade students from entering theatre is the heavy time commitment. Almost everyone has seen or heard the theatre kid meme: “I can’t, I have rehearsal.” And while this can be true (and we have used it to get out of things that we don’t really want to go to), the commitment is no worse than a regular sport. Rehearsals are after school or on the weekends, but many directors are flexible and willing to work with students and their schedules. Since some troupes rehearse on the weekends, afternoons are open for other activities. For example, Anna is in the marching band, which means that she doesn’t have time after school for rehearsals. Since Empowered Players meets on the weekends, she can do both band and theatre. Kessler competes in Forensics through the school, and the weekend rehearsals mean that she has time for homework after school and practice. This is a common occurrence. Many people balance both theatre and other extracurricular activities!
Debunk: “I can only do theatre through my school”
Popular media likes to portray that theatre can only be done through a school (High School Musical, anyone?). While school theatre is definitely an option, it is not the only option. There are many external troupes and programs that allow students to act outside of school hours. These troupes are important because it allows students who don’t go to a traditional school, such as homeschoolers, to experience theatre. There are many community theatre programs that are open to everyone, which opens up theatre opportunities to those who can’ do traditional theatre.
Outside opportunities are also important for those who aren’t comfortable doing theatre through school. Sometimes people have bad experiences with school theatre and are not comfortable going back to school. Community theatre opportunities reopens the door of theatre to those who thought it closed.
Debunk: “I can’t do community theatre because it’s only for adults”
Unfortunately, doing theatre through a community program comes with its own stereotypes. One of the most prominent ideas is that community theatre is only for adults. This is supplemented by many shows that community theatres produce that are not necessarily suitable for teenagers, tweens, or children to act in.
However, many troupes do perform shows that are children-appropriate and sometimes even call for child actors. If someone is interested and there is a community theatre troupe nearby, we suggest reaching out to them and expressing interest. If there is an opening for a child or teen actor, then go ahead and join! If not, then keep reaching out to other troupes and the right one will connect with you! Acting with adults will also increase your skill, since you will be working alongside more experienced actors who can show you some tips and tricks of the trade.
Debunk: “Everyone in theatre already has friends. I won’t be welcome”
The deterrent to many teens in joining new activities is the fear of a clique within that activity that will not accept them. Theatre is infamous for cliquey groups that exclude newcomers, but this is simply not true in most cases. Theatre troupes are welcoming of new actors, especially because more actors means a larger cast. A larger cast means a more in depth and overall fun play. In addition, the people within the groups remember how it felt to be a newcomer to the scene, and as such are welcoming. Theatre, as an art, also attracts kind and accepting people.
Debunk: “Everyone in theatre is dramatic” or “Rehearsals are full of drama”
The final myth that we plan to debunk centers on another name for theatre. Many people call theatre “drama” and this can lead many to believe that actors are backstabbing hooligans, constantly on the lookout for new drama. This is just not correct! Rehearsals are calm places, devoted to the play. While some actors do participate in “backstage drama,” as it is coined, most just want to have a fun show.
Theatre kids also receive an unjust reputation for being “over dramatic.” Seeing as how these people are actors, a certain amount of this is to be expected, but not to the degree that is shown in mass media. The over dramatism is mainly just employed in jokes, and actors know when too much is too much.
Theatre Stereotypes Debunked
Although there are many more myths and stereotypes than what is covered in this blog, we have debunked a few of (what we thought were) the most famous ones that keep youth from entering theatre. An important element to remember is that theatre is not what the media paints it as, and many people from all walks of life enjoy theatre in many different ways. And if acting isn’t something that interests you, that’s okay! Theatre encompasses everything from acting to directing to the technical crew working behind the scenes. All parts are necessary to ensure a successful show. So try out for that musical! Join that community theatre troupe! Take that directing class! Even if theatre is not for you, you will have gained new skills that will benefit you in unexpected but amazing ways.
Author Bio: Kessler is a junior in Fluvanna County High School. She competes in Forensics through FCHS and participates in the spring shows performed by the high school. She has been involved with Empowered Players for over six years and has worked on many aspects of the theatre experience, from acting in both ensemble and starring roles, to tech, to management and directing. enjoys both acting and directing. This spring, she is excited to star in Peter and the Starcatcher as Molly Aster. This is her first time writing for a UVA blog.
Author Bio: Anna is a sophomore at Fluvanna County High School and has been involved with theatre since the summer before 4th grade. She did the initial Empowered Players summer camp, and has been involved with the program since. She has been in numerous shows, as well as camps, and has learned theatre management, directing, script writing and playwriting through those camps. She has just wrapped up her latest show, in which she played Alice in the Addams Family Musical. She also did her first mentoring volunteer work with Empowered Players in the Rudolph Musical this past semester.
As the holiday season approaches, Youth-Nex is revisiting the 2022 archives for the blog.
We highlight themes from this year’s blog postings, including youth voice, the latest research, and more.
Read more and see what posts you missed from 2022, and what you should take into 2023!
At the core of the work here at Youth-Nex is including and elevating the voices of youth. Dr. Nancy Deutsch, Youth-Nex Director, recently said there are two significant reasons for this. The first is that youth are more than just future adults who will one day be impacted by and engaged in making decisions about the world; they are both impacted and active now.
“It’s not just that youth have a stake in the future impact of the actions we take, they have an immediate stake in them too,” Deutsch said. “That means they should have a say in how we think about social issues and what we do to address them. Beyond that, they are already actively trying to make change. Just look around and you can see how young people are engaged in social change efforts across a range of issues.”
Deutsch also believes that including youth voices yields better results.
“We need their ideas,” Deutsch said. “Young people are better at brainstorming beyond boundaries. They engage in creative problem-solving in a way that can open new possibilities that adults don’t see. Because adolescents are more open to novelty and risk-taking than adults are, this can make them more innovative problem-solvers.”
In 2022, we featured youth writers that were middle schoolers, high schoolers and young adults. They talked about the importance of art, advised educators on how to use social media, highlighted the importance of Black History, and encouraged young people to be active in performing arts. Read more about:
Check out these blogs to link to the youth takeovers on Instagram that accompanied many of these posts!
Youth-Nex takes a translational approach to scholarship and innovation which aims to expand and apply the science of Positive Youth Development. Our work enhances the strengths of youth to support thriving and prevent developmental risk such as violence, physical and mental health issues, substance abuse and school failure.
In 2022, many of our blog posts highlighted new research just published or available to teachers, parents and more educational stakeholders. These researchers explain their new work on:
Although all these blog posts share important perspectives, there are two that we would be remiss not to highlight from 2022. The messages shared by these authors are particularly salient given the on-going current news in the United States for youth as we approach 2023:
For Pride month, Lamont Bryant writes how “LGBTQ+ Youth Need Your Support.” They describe how the U.S. is at a turning point, emphasizing the importance of social support for our LGBTQ+IA2+ communities. Read more about what you can do now for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, two-spirit, and other sexual diverse and gender minoritized individuals (LGBTQ+IA2+).
For Mental Health Awareness month, this video blog addresses “Youth Mental Health & Reshaping Our Culture.” Daniel Fairley II shares tips for what adults can do to support youth mental health right now, after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Author Bio: Leslie M. Booren is the Associate Director for Communications and Operations at Youth-Nex and the Youth-Nex blog editor. In this role, she manages operations, HR, events, communications and marketing for the center. Previously she has worked at the Center for Race and Public Education in the South (CRPES), EdPolicyWorks, and the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) in various roles from research faculty to managing director. She has a strong interest in community and youth development by bridging applied and research-based practices.
By: Gloria & Ash, 9th graders from Empowered Players (EP) and members of EP’s Teen Arts Board (TAB).
This blog post is the first of four in a Youth Performing Arts Series by teens involved in the performing arts. For more posts, please visit our blog.
Ash & Gloria also took over the Youth-Nex & Empowered Players Instagram accounts to talk more about this blog and their experiences!
Empowered Players (EP) is a Fluvanna-based non-profit in VA designed to make a difference in the community through the arts. Their mission is to uplift the human spirit through access to quality arts experiences, youth empowerment, and community service through free & accessible K-12 theater education and programming.
In this Youth Performing Arts Series, youth involved with EP will share more about their experiences and perspectives engaging in the performing arts.
In this first of four blog posts, these youth share more about how acting helped them build skills and confidence for the future.
Hi, we’re Gloria and Ash! We are both in 9th grade and have some things in common. For example, we both like to act, to read, to dance, and to do some art. We want to talk about how being involved in Empowered Players has helped us in everyday life and with our acting. In particular, theater has helped us with public speaking, expressing ourselves, confidence, and creativity.
Improving Public Speaking
Empowered Players has helped me (Ash) with many things in my everyday life. One way it’s helped me is in public speaking. When in a play, you always know what to say and when it’s the appropriate time to say it. For example, I was in a play, The Jungle Book. Being in this play showed me the appropriate responses to things that would need to be said when speaking anywhere. For example, when talking to an adult, I am able to think of a response sooner and sound like I know how to talk to an adult. With that, I am now able to plan what I want to say anywhere, and have the ability to improv if I don’t already have a response to something when I need it. It also helps by already being on stage with a bunch of people that you may or may not know.
Empowered Players has also helped me (Ash) with expressing myself. Performing in a play helps show different emotions and different personalities, and this can help with expressing who you are in everyday life. For example, you could also express yourself in the play and show who you are in the play.
Empowered Players has also helped me (Gloria) with my creativity.
It has helped me because when we are playing improv games, I have to think of something to say quickly and it also has to be creative. My creativity has improved; and I have noticed that when I’m working on little crafts at home, it is easier for me to think of what to make.
Empowered Players has helped me (Gloria) with my confidence, because when I’m in an Empowered Players group, I can be myself. I also learned that people don’t care what you look like or do, and that has really helped with my everyday life. Throughout the year my confidence has gone up. For example, I can make friends easier now, and it is easier for me to talk to people that I don’t really know. I have also noticed that I have become more confident in speaking in class in front of classmates and teachers, and that I can express my thoughts and opinions more freely and without worrying too much about what they think. When I looked at the Halloween costume contest video we recorded with the Teen Arts Board, where I was one of the presenters, I can really tell that I am more comfortable in front of a camera now.
The creator economy is a rapidly growing system that democratizes education whilst also making learning more efficient.
Due to online learning in the pandemic, educators are more adept at teaching in the digital age; the next stage for educators is to consider reinventing themselves and their identities to include being a creator as a vital part of their role.
This blog explores how educators should build their brands and leverage platforms that enable them to maximize the impact of their knowledge.
The creator economy is a $100 billion economy involving independent creators that grow and monetize their work through software tools, such as YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, Spotify, Substack, Patreon, and more. Since the barrier of entry to create and distribute content is extremely low, the distribution and accessibility of ideas and skills have grown exponentially. In terms of monetization, creators use a variety of revenue models from ad revenue, brand deals, and affiliate links to courses, paid newsletters, and creator-led brands. This economic system, built by 50 million content creators, community builders, bloggers, influencers, artists, and writers, is one of the fastest-growing segments in business with no signs of slowing down.
The Creator Economy & Education
One of the industries most affected by the rise of the creator economy is the education sector. With tuition rates rising constantly and quality education becoming more accessible through MOOCs (massive open online courses) and other free sources online. Due to this availability of information and resources, higher education enrollment, both online and in-person universities, has been on a decline since 2012. Alongside the declining trend of higher education, the creator economy continues to grow and establish itself as a powerful source of widespread education. This is due to the many benefits that digital content provides, such as lower costs, greater accessibility, greater flexibility, up-to-date content, and more efficient upskilling (continuous learning, used to gain and improve specific skills). As a result, content creators are emerging as the teachers and instructors of the next generation, educating people in fields from fitness to business to culinary skills.
The Rise of Live & Cohort-Based Learning
Although the creator economy has allowed for education to become more democratized and accessible, it does come with a few downsides that are important to understand. The increase in the quantity of content makes execution and implementation more important than ever. This is evident due to traditional online courses, such as MOOCs, having a completion rate of only 3-5%. Additionally, digital learning can also result in a lack of the ability to learn together alongside peers, which creates a need for community. As a result, we’ve seen the edtech space double down on the creator economy through cohort-based learning, which has dramatically risen in popularity over the last few years. Companies such as Maven, Mighty Networks, and Disco allow creators and experts to turn their knowledge into engaging cohort-based courses that allow students to experience hands-on learning with accountability through the presence of community. Beyond this, leaders in the edtech space are also exploring use cases of virtual reality and augmented reality in online STEM classes to further increase engagement and learning outcomes.
How Educators can Leverage the Creator Economy
With the rise of digital education, through the likes of the creator economy and cohort-based learning, we can potentially see certain portions of traditional education become obsolete. As a result, it’s important for educators to evolve and reinvent their practices.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed certain holes in traditional education, which has resulted in the online and hybrid education models existing and rising in popularity even after the peak of the pandemic. With teachers across the world being forced to evolve their curriculum and their skills as a part of this trend, educators are now more adept at teaching in the digital age.
In addition to meeting the demands of virtual learning, teachers should also consider reinventing themselves and their identities to include being a creator as a vital part of their role as an educator. For example:
Graham Weaver, an entrepreneur and six-year lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, created a TikTok account to share his knowledge of economics, personal finance, and life lessons. Through leveraging the power of the creator economy through short-form content, Graham increased his reach exponentially to distribute his knowledge and expertise at rates much faster than he could solely through the classroom.
Brittany Sinitch, a middle school teacher who documents her life as a teacher through vlogs, Q&As, and lesson plans she uses in the classroom. However, Brittany is not alone as many K-12 educators are using the power of social media to create a classroom that goes beyond physical walls.
It is important to understand that education is a dynamic and ever-changing field that requires constant experimentation and iteration. With education only becoming more accessible and democratized, the identity of educators will change as they won’t be limited to their classroom. In the new age, educators will be building their brands and leveraging platforms that allow them to maximize the impact of their knowledge and play the game of distribution.
Author Bio: Hey, I’m Harish 👋. I’m the co-founder & CEO of Guardial and teen entrepreneur at WIT. I’m based in Austin, Texas, and love exploring social entrepreneurship, the creator economy, and marketing/branding. Feel free to reach out @harishkolli_, would love to chat!
Suicide among Black youth and young adults is a national public health crisis. However, limited research has examined contributing and protective factors of suicide among Black youth and young adults (this is especially relevant in light of September being Suicide Prevention Awareness Month).
Recent research suggests symptoms of depression are associated with greater suicidal ideation for Black young adults, but that self-acceptance may buffer this association.
In this blog, read more about these findings and what you can do to help address the crisis of Black youth suicide.
Suicide is a major public health concern among all age groups. However, with increases in social media use, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and self-inflicted injuries, suicidal thoughts and behaviors among youth and youth adults are of particular concern1,2. Importantly, analysis of the CDC’s national 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey reveal that suicide among Black youth has increased at an alarming rate, faster than any other racial or ethnic group3. Findings suggest that suicide attempts have risen 73% between 1991 and 2017 for Black adolescents, and injuries from suicide attempts have risen 122% for Black adolescent boys over the same time period3. As a result, research investigating how suicide risk develops, and can be prevented, among Black youth is warranted.
The Role of Depression and Self-Acceptance
Previous research suggests that depression is a robust risk factor for suicide; however, Black Americans remain largely underrepresented in these studies. In our new study, published in the Journal of Black Psychology, we examined the association between symptoms of depression and suicide ideation among Black young adults, as well as the potential buffering role of self-acceptance.
Our study found that elevated symptoms of depression were associated with increased suicide ideation. Potential explanations of the pathway between depression and suicide for Black young adults include exposure to racism-related stressors, hopelessness, diminished psychological functioning, and impaired coping skills4-6. Importantly, we found that for Black young adults who reported higher levels of self-acceptance (i.e., positive and realistic attitudes toward the self), symptoms of depression were not associated with suicidal ideation. This finding suggests that holding positive attitudes towards oneself protects against external influences that may lead to psychological distress. Moreover, this finding suggests that assisting Black young adults in cultivating increased feelings of self-worth may lead to a reduction in risk for suicidal ideation.
How to Support Black Youth
Youth suicide is preventable. Suicide rates for Black youth and young adults can be substantially reduced through the following recommendations:
Learn the signs and symptoms of suicide risk. If you or someone you know is suicidal, get help immediately via calling or texting the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or the Crisis Text Line (text “HOME” to741741).
For parents, talk and listen to your child. Affirm their feelings and foster an accepting and welcoming environment to discuss mental health and well-being. Keep learning new strategies on how to check in on your child’s mental health.
For teachers, foster supportive, warm, and inclusive classroom environments and maintain positive connections to Black students.
For providers, screen for depression in primary care settings. Furthermore, we can work together to design and implement more race-conscious and culturally responsive suicide interventions targeting specific risk factors among Black youth.
Help break the stigma that exists surrounding suicidal thoughts and behaviors by: 1) bringing awareness to (and helping to reduce) the use of stigmatizing language surrounding suicide, 2) educate your family, friends, and colleagues about the unique experiences and challenges of mental health within the Black community, and 3) take steps to address our own implicit biases and any assumptions we may have surrounding suicide and mental health.
 Miron, O., Yu, K. H., Wilf-Miron, R., & Kohane, I. S. (2019). Suicide rates among adolescents and young adults in the United States, 2000-2017. JAMA, 321(23), 2362-2364.
 Mercado, M. C., Holland, K., Leemis, R. W., Stone, D. M., & Wang, J. (2017). Trends in emergency department visits for nonfatal self-inflicted injuries among youth aged 10 to 24 years in the United States, 2001-2015. JAMA, 318(19), 1931-1933.
 Lindsey, M. A., Sheftall, A. H., Xiao, Y., & Joe, S. (2019). Trends of suicidal behaviors among high school students in the United States: 1991–2017. Pediatrics, 144(5).
 Nrugham, L., Holen, A., & Sund, A. M. (2012). Suicide attempters and repeaters: Depression and coping a prospective study of early adolescents followed up as young adults. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 200(3), 197-203.
 Abramson, L. Y., Alloy, L. B., Hogan, M. E., Whitehouse, W. G., Gibb, B. E., Hankin, B. L., & Cornette, M. M. (2002). The hopelessness theory of suicidality. In Suicide science (pp. 17-32). Springer, Boston, MA.
 Walker, R. L., Salami, T. K., Carter, S. E., & Flowers, K. (2014). Perceived racism and suicide ideation: Mediating role of depression but moderating role of religiosity among African American adults. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior, 44(5), 548-559.
Author Bio: Jasmin R. Brooks, M.A. is a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Houston. Her research interests include evaluating how sociocultural risk (e.g., racial discrimination) and protective (e.g., mindfulness, racial identity) factors influence suicidality and mental health for Black populations. She aims to apply her research to the development of clinical interventions that reduce racial stress and promote psychological well-being within Black and other marginalized communities. Jasmin also maintains a strong commitment to being active in her community through mentoring, non-profit work, and creating a podcast, We Had the Talk. If you are interested in learning more about Jasmin’s work you may visit her website at: https://jasminbrooks.com/, follow her on Twitter at: @__JasminBrooks, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this inaugural post of our Middle School Redesign series, we introduce you to the themes uncovered during our RMS Listening Tour by focusing on descriptions of a dream middle school.
The Remaking Middle School initiative is re-envisioning the middle school years as positive and transformative educational experiences for all young adults, and has been conducting a Listening Tour.
During the Listening Tour, educators, parents, and community members shared what they thought is key to middle school redesign efforts, and these findings have been organized into themes.
Highlighted in this introduction blog are those themes around student voice and collaboration, developmentally supportive curricula, a whole child approach that supports social-emotional development, and the physical environment of the school.
Imagine that you had the opportunity to completely redesign the middle school experience. What would your dream school look like? How would it support the unique needs of early adolescents? We posed this question to over 100 middle school educators, parents, and community partners during our nationwide Remaking Middle School (RMS) Listening Tour. This is what we heard.
Student Voice/Collaboration in Decision Making
Educators and parents alike highlighted the importance of centering middle school redesign work with students’ voices. They discussed how students need to be consulted before any redesign work begins. One administrator explained this, noting:
“We’ve always thought, well, if the kid had the choice whether or not they would come to your classroom … would they? And we saw in the last few years, the answer to that for some kids was, no. They wouldn’t. So, how do we change that? I think we change that …by asking kids. So, that question that you just asked me, I wouldn’t answer it. I would pose that question to 615 adolescents.”
Our data suggests that the voices of adolescents should be the first and the loudest. However, eliciting student voices did not go far enough. Instead we must bring students into the conversation as equal collaborators in decision making. Another administrator exemplified this narrative stating, “the governance of the place needs to be… in such a way that there are student representatives in school boards, students who are on the admin team. … Don’t talk about them, talk with them…”. Taken together, this suggests that design work should both begin and end with students, fostering opportunities for continued collaboration and idea sharing throughout the entire process.
Developmentally Supportive Curriculum
Educators and parents also voiced a desire to redesign the middle school curriculum, opting for curricula that are developmentally responsive to the needs and assets of middle school students. For example, many highlighted developmentally supportive strategies such as fostering failure-safe educational contexts, teaching content with real world applications, emphasizing cross-curricular connections, and assigning experiential / project-based learning activities. Underlying all of these suggestions is a focus on getting students away from the traditional siloed approaches to learning out of context. One youth development worker highlighted their desire for: “more project-based, community-based learning opportunities, where it’s integrative — you know, it’s not a singular subject matter but it’s integrated subjects working… all connected together on topics and exploration.” Strategies of this sort foster more opportunities for students to engage in a curriculum that is both supportive of their developmental needs (e.g., autonomy, socialization, risk taking,) and fosters more opportunities for critical thinking.
SEL/Whole Child Approach
Many of the parents and educators that we spoke with envisioned redesigning middle school so that it prepares students not only to excel academically but also to thrive personally. Their dream middle school cultivates a climate that supports whole-child development and equips students with the social-emotional skills necessary to succeed in school, work, and life. One school administrator described, “I think there’s this aspect of social-emotional learning and creating safety and spaces for, honestly, particularly middle schoolers to just learn how to be little humans.” Stakeholders also spoke of the need for educators to establish meaningful and healthy relationships with each student and to acknowledge their students’ unique strengths. One parent described:
They treat each child as an individual, like, human being, who is celebrated for all their weirdness. There are so many weird, happy, wonderful kids. That’s what middle school should be, right? That to me is the basic difference of the [ideal middle] school and everything kind of builds from there. The teachers are focused on the kids as individuals. They’re helping them interact [and] grow.
Respondents highlighted specific strategies to support social-emotional development (e.g., restorative justice approaches, mental health services, school-home-community partnerships) and emphasized the importance of centering equity in redesign efforts: “there’s got to be a principle of equity and universal human value that can’t be compromised.”
Several participants believe that a traditional classroom layout simply “doesn’t work for middle schoolers because it’s completely counter to the way their bodies are growing.” In many traditional school settings, students are confined to their desks with the exception of transitioning to and from classes, lunch periods, and bathroom breaks, not providing adequate time to socialize with peers or exert energy outside of designated recess and physical education periods. One middle grade administrator stated that he would combat this by creating “a common area that was a place where students can sit, and hang out, and talk” as well as “a big outdoor learning area, an interactive garden.” While several participants focused on the significance of including opportunities for social interaction amongst students and outdoor learning, others spotlighted the importance of making learning spaces visually appealing to students. One middle grade parent shared his ideal classroom“would be bright, definitely bright. I hate the white walls. The kids hate the light walls, the fluorescent lights, and just the plain floors. It would be just brightly colored, because that’s the middle school personality.” Adolescent years are known for being a time of transition and self-discovery. They are anything but boring, “so why are we putting them in boring classrooms?”
Interested in learning more about these ideas? In future Middle School Redesign posts, we will dive deeper into each theme, exploring stakeholders’ perspectives on what is and is not working in middle school education as well as how research aligns with their observations. We are currently discussing these ideas with youth to add their essential perspectives to this work. Are you a middle grades student or know one who might be interested? Have them reach out to us:Youth-Nex@virginia.edu.
The Remaking Middle School initiative is an emerging partnership working to build and steward a new collective effort for young adolescent learning and development. Founding partners include the University of Virginia Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), the Altria Group, and the New York Life Foundation. We are seeking to ignite conversation, action, and a movement to re-envision and remake the middle school experience in a way that recognizes the strengths of young adolescents and ensures all students thrive and grow from their experiences in the middle grades.
Author Bio: Ashlee Sjogren, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral research associate at Youth-Nex: Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, University of Virginia. Her research is broadly focused on equitable education both in- and out-of-school. Most recently, Dr. Sjogren has investigated student access and engagement in out-of-school contexts. As an educational psychologist, Dr. Sjogren often brings both a social context and motivation lens to understanding questions of equity, access, and motivation.
Author Bio: Detajha Woodson is the Program & Outreach Associate at Youth-Nex: the UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. Detajha contributes a practitioner lens which stems from her professional experience working in education-focused nonprofits.
Author Bio: Faith Zabek, PhD, NCSP, is a postdoctoral research associate with the Virginia Partnership for School Mental Health (VPSMH) and the Remaking Middle School (RMS) project at the University of Virginia. Her research investigates youth wellbeing through a bioecological lens, with a focus on school mental health and school climate. She is interested in exploring the ways in which contexts and interactions impact student and school outcomes as well as how research-practice partnerships can facilitate youth success.
Attachment styles have been shown to shape mental health, but almost no research has examined the experiences of Black teens (this is especially important in light of BIPOC Mental Health Month).
Our new research reveals that Black teens experience more racism in their neighborhoods, and those experiences of racism are associated with greater attachment avoidance (discomfort with emotional closeness) and with elevated depressive symptoms in the early teen years.
We also explore other findings, including how attachment avoidance predicted increases in depressive symptoms over time, but only for teens who identified as White; avoidance was not a risk factor for teens who identified as Black.
Think back to your teenage years: Was it a happy time in your life, or did you struggle with feelings of depression? Did you lean on your close friends or family members for support, or did you deal with your feelings by yourself? And did you ever experience racial discrimination in your neighborhood?
We put these questions to teens themselves to uncover how race, racism, and attachment style — or how we feel and behave in close relationships — shape mental health during adolescence. Our new study, published in a special issue of Attachment and Human Development, explored pathways to mental health for teens with different racial-ethnic identities and experiences of discrimination in their neighborhood.
Teens’ Relationship Styles
We focused on two styles of behavior in close relationships:
Attachment avoidance – teens’ reluctance to trust others, discomfort with vulnerability, and tendency to deal with emotions alone.
Attachment anxiety – teens’ worries about their relationships and fears of abandonment.
Previous studies had shown that both attachment avoidance and anxiety foreshadow increased risk for depression— but these studies overwhelmingly focused on White college students. Almost no studies had examined the unique experiences of Black teens, for whom some aspects of avoidance (like being able to suppress vulnerable emotions when necessary) may be understandable —or even protective— in the context of dealing with racism in their daily lives.
We followed 171 teens from Prince George’s County, MD from age 14 to age 18, focusing on teens who identified as Black or as White. Each year, we asked them to report their attachment style, experiences of racism in their neighborhood, and symptoms of depression. We tested a simple but novel question:
Do the well-established links between attachment and depression differ depending on teens’ racial identity and perceptions of neighborhood racism?
Racial Identity & Racism Findings
When we looked at our sample of teens all together, attachment anxiety and avoidance predicted increasing risk for depressive symptoms— replicating most previous studies. But the story was more complex when considering race.
First, Black teens perceived significantly more racism in their neighborhoods than White teens (unsurprisingly), and those experiences of racism were associated with greater attachment avoidance and with elevated depressive symptoms in the early teen years. Second, avoidance predicted increases in depressive symptoms from age 14 to 18 only for teens who identified as White; avoidance was not a risk factor for teens who identified as Black. These effects of racial context were unique to avoidance, and not attachment anxiety.
This suggests that Black teens may cope with racism in their communities by adopting avoidant strategies to manage vulnerable emotions.
Rather than assuming that avoidance is universally “bad” for teens, we can see it instead as an understandable strategy for Black youth dealing with racism that may be protective, at least in the short term. Even so, all Black teens need and deserve close relationships in which they feel safe, secure, and supported in expressing their full range of emotion.
The findings reveal how the pathways linking experiences in close relationships to mental health outcomes can vary by racial context— highlighting the importance of considering diversity in adolescent development. Future research is needed to understand how attachment might interact with racial identity to shape other important outcomes, like coping, resilience, critical consciousness, and racial identity development.
How to Support Black Adolescents
As we consider ways to support positive youth development and mental health, it is critical to understand the unique social and emotional experiences of Black youth. Researchers and practitioners can support Black adolescents by:
Advocating for anti-racist policy;
Understanding that moderate levels of avoidance may be a protective strategy for dealing with racism in daily life (that is, not pathologizing teens’ avoidant attachment style); and
Supporting social relationships in which Black youth can safely express their full selves (for instance, relationships with natural mentors).
Author Bio: Dr. Jessica Stern is a postdoctoral fellow in the Dept. of Psychology at University of Virginia. Her research focuses on close relationships, child and adolescent development, empathy, and anti-racist scholarship.
June is Pride month, and as we celebrate our LGBTQ+IA2+ communities, we should also recognize that this current moment is a turning point from a policy perspective.
We need to support LGBTQ+ youth socially and recognize the intersection of youths’ race, sexuality, and gender identity.
In this blog, read more about what you can do next to support LGBTQ+ youth.
Watching gravity-defying drag-queens perform acrobats in 6 ½ inch stilettos or stunning ballroom legends voguing as they battle on the dancefloor are some of my favorite moments during Pride. However, every year I spot a group of LGBTQ+ youth sporting their colorful Pride flags like superhero caps, which stirs unfadable joy and the flutter of hope. They are superheroes for daring to live and be their most authentic selves in their own right.
The fact of the matter is, LGBTQ+ youth don’t need another hero, but they need the support to thrive. Their presence is an essential reminder that Pride is not a parade, but a brave protest to proclaim equity and freedom from the normative limits of gender and sexuality at the intersection of infinite social identities. Every year we celebrate Pride during the month of June as an important reminder of resistance against the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, two-spirit, and other sexual diverse and gender minoritized individuals (LGBTQ+IA2+).
This year, over 250 anti-LGBTQ+ state legislative bills will loom over Pride. More importantly, is the fact that this historic surge of anti-LGBTQ+ bills is made up of 200 anti-LGBTQ+ bills that adversely affect LGBTQ+ youth. While a quarter of these bills aim to criminalize lifesaving medical care for transgender youth, approximately 75% of the anti-LGBTQ+ bills enable the discrimination against LGBTQ+ youth in schools, particularly transgender youth. 
We stand at a curious junction. The introduction of anti-LGBTQ+ school policies threatens decades of youth advocacy and work within the educational system to increase greater protections for LGBTQ+ youth. As such, schools with LGBTQ+ affirming policies have become a refuge of acceptance and empowerment for many LGBTQ+ youth who may face rejection at home or within their community. By and large, most LGBTQ+ youth identify schools as LGBTQ+ affirming (55%) and gender-affirming (51%) spaces in stark comparison to affirming homes (37% and 32%, respectively). 
The Importance of Social Support for LGBTQ+ Youth
By addressing the systemic oppression of LGBTQ+ youth, schools can become grounds for fostering social support networks and relationships. Research has found that creating affirming environments through Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) school groups and LGBTQ+-focused school policies impede peer bullying and foster higher levels of support from classmates and teachers. 
The association of LGBTQ+ affirming schools with lower rates of attempted suicide is important to preserve, given that 45% of LGBTQ+ considered suicide within the past year.
While student organizations like GSA’s do not guarantee psychological wellbeing, efforts to support and affirm LGBTQ+ youth are interrelated to feeling connected to their school.
Many of the anti-LGBTQ+ efforts in schools will threaten the viable connection LGBTQ+ youth have with their schools. Anti-LGBTQ+ school policies isolate youth by prohibiting transgender youth from competing in student athletics, limiting age-appropriate discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, and denying youth access to school facilities that align with their gender identity. Furthermore, many of the anti-LGBTQ+ youth initiatives also include language that will criminalize the discussion of racism within schools. However, discourse around LGBTQ+ youth and school and social support often neglects meaningful discussion at the intersection of race.
The Importance LGBTQ+ Youth at Their Intersections
Let me spill some real tea that may be obvious to many Black folx in the LGBTQ+ community; It is simply impossible to discuss any LGBTQ+ issue without addressing race. Period. However, the discussion of Black LGBTQ+ youth and young adults often occurs within the context of sexual-transmitted infections, HIV, and PrEP adherence. It is important that we continue to discuss how systemic barriers to health that target sexual and gender minoritized youth disproportionately affect Black LGBTQ+ youth and youth adults. However, I cannot help but wonder how the historical hyper-sexualization of the Black body may exclude Black LGBTQ+ youth and young adults from conversations about social well-being, connectivity, and other forms of positive interpersonal engagement.
Black LGBTQ+ youth face discrimination at the intersection of their race, sexuality, and gender identity both at school and at home. I find the complexity of Black LGBTQ+ social support interesting because seeking support from both inside and outside their families can be both beneficial and potentially harmful. For instance, there is a link between LGBTQ+ affirming schools and reduced attempted suicide ; however, Black LGBTQ+ students attending majority Black schools were least likely to have a gender and sexuality alliance support group. 
In conjunction, Black young adults place great importance in connecting with their family compared to other racial groups; however, Black LGBTQ+ youth continued to experience greater rejection from their family and Black peers.  However, dialogue about the social support from their family of origin and close friends (i.e., chosen family, fictive kin) often assumes that these support systems operate independently.
As systemic changes propose a threat to make schools less affirming spaces, it will be increasingly important to understand how to aid Black families in their efforts to support their Black LGBTQ+ youth. My current research seeks to understand the role of Black LGBTQ+ young adults’ social support networks play as they navigate oppression that targets their racialized sexual and gender identity. Furthermore, I hope to shed more light on the interconnectedness of Black LGBTQ+ young adults’ social support network.
What Can We Do Now?
For most LGBTQ+ youth, the best way for parents and caregivers to demonstrate their support is by accepting and welcoming their LGBTQ+ friends or partner(s).
When LGBTQ+ youth choose a name that better reflects their gender identity, avoid “deadnaming” (the name given at birth).
Pronouns are essential tools that validate LGBTQ+ youth and young adults’ gender identity. When in doubt, use their name and ask about their pronouns.
We all make mistakes. If you misgender a person, it is important to acknowledge your error and apologize without making it about you.
LGBTQ+ youth of color may be more reluctant to report harm or harassment, so be proactive by offering your support while also bolstering their autonomy.
Listen, reflect, and talk respectfully with LGBTQ+ youth about their identity. Supporting LGBTQ+ youth may mean finding help and resources to process your personal feelings, expectations you developed as a parent, prejudices (we all have them), and identifying areas of growth with other adults.
 Day, J. K., Fish, J. N., Grossman, A. H., & Russell, S. T. (2020). Gay‐straight alliances, inclusive policy, and school climate: LGBTQ+ youths’ experiences of social support and bullying. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 30, 418-430.
 Truong, N. L., Zongrone, A. D., & Kosciw, J. G. (2020). Erasure and resilience: The experiences of LGBTQ students of color, Black LGBTQ youth in U.S. schools. New York: GLSEN.
 Hailey, J., Burton, W., & Arscott, J. (2020). We are family: Chosen and created families as a protective factor against racialized trauma and anti-LGBTQ oppression among African American sexual and gender minority youth. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 16(2), 176-191.
Author Bio: Lamont Bryant (they/them) is a community psychology doctoral student at the University of Virginia. Inspired by Black feminist and queer/quare theory, Lamont seeks to understand the development of psychosocial-informed protective practices. Specifically, their research examines Black women, and sexual and gender minorities’ formation and utility of social support, both in-person and online. Lamont is a first-generation student and the recipient of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Department Diversity Recruitment Award and the Dean’s Doctoral Fellowship. Before attending UVA, they lectured for several years at the University of Baltimore and Towson University’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies. At the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine, they coordinated specialty health educational assistance and professional development for youth and LGBTQ-serving organizations and providers. Additionally, Lamont mentored a team of Black LGBTQ+ young adults through an empowerment framework and utilized community-based participatory research methodologies and systematic tools to gather community input for targeted interventions created for and with LGBTQ+ youth of color.