Michael Denning: Mentorship offers hope to youth in new normal

February 19, 2022. The Daily Reflector. By Michael Denning.

What kid doesn’t like candy? As an N.C. Schweitzer Fellow, I am co-leading a mentoring and health education program for minority middle and high school boys at Building Hope Community Life Center. Every Monday, I provide a package of candy to our young men. M&Ms are a fan favorite.

While the young men indulge in their sugary happiness, we begin the usual barrage of questions: How was school today? What did you learn? Are you excited about our lesson? How are you doing? How are you doing? And once again, how are YOU doing?

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues as a constant in our ever-changing lives, the speaking of a new normal continues, especially surrounding child and adolescent development. Over the past three years, our youth have had to adapt and grow in a world unlike any time before.Virtual schooling, limited social engagement, mask acne, uncertainty of the future — these are just a few adaptations that are contributing to major mental health concerns.

NC Child, a nonprofit focused on youth advocacy, reported a 25.8 percent increase in major depressive episodes in adolescents in the past year, with only 43.3 percent of these youth having the ability to receive treatment for their depression. The CDC presented a 22.3 percent spike in potential suicides among 12-17-year-olds nationwide, since the pandemic began.

With these statistics, youth of color are disproportionally represented. In addition to exacerbation of mental health concerns, academic achievements within public schools have diminished. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction reported that one in six North Carolina ninth-graders did not progress to the 10th grade, primarily due to chronic absenteeism and unsatisfactory grades. The new normal is anything but. However, there is hope.

The strengthening process begins within the community. As a medical student and future pediatrician, I have committed my life to ensuring all kids and communities have the tools, training and people to not only survive but thrive. In medicine, we often focus on the disease at hand without truly diving into the root of the problem. Supporting our youth is similar. As adults, we often react toward the outbursts and blatantly apparent problems without truly being present and asking our kids about the fundamental issue. We must begin to be present. We must begin to ask.

Studies show that having one consistent and positive adult in a child’s life can negate negative traumatic experiences the child has faced, even with the COVID-19 pandemic. With our youth in distress, I am pleading for us, as adults, professionals and neighbors, to get involved in mentorship and sponsorship within our communities.

Across the state of North Carolina, local community organizations, after-school care programs and schools are seeking positive influences to engage, educate and motivate our future leaders and scholars. These engagements can be as simple as assisting with homework once a week at the local Boys & Girls clubs to developing and implementing a mentorship and health education program via a national fellowship.

The impact on youth, the organization and you is invaluable.

My favorite civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer, often said, “Whether you have a Ph.D., D.D. or no D, we’re in this bag together. And whether you are from Morehouse or Nohouse, we’re still in this bag together.”

If we all can be present, ask questions, develop positive relationships and support our youth, I am sure our new normal will be as sweet as a pack of M&Ms!

Michael Denning is a student in the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University and a 2021-22 North Carolina Schweitzer Fellow. He is from Garner.