July 5, 2019, I made the hardest decision of my life. Terminating the pregnancy of my daughter was incredibly traumatic. The emptiness I felt was trying to tell me something but instead of addressing it, I buried myself in work and school. Focusing on anything else seemed fair as time heals all wounds…doesn’t it? Let me tell you that is a lie. Working with young people in my after-school program brought joy to my day but that was not enough, and I needed to find a way to heal.
Fast forward to my last semester at CUNY SPS, I find myself having trouble sleeping and can’t seem to focus on my schoolwork. One day as I sat there finally considering therapy, I get the email from CUNY offering free counseling. I remember sitting in my Youth Policy class just thinking “this has to be the universe telling me it has my back”. I eagerly send an email to schedule my first appointment, then boom, a global pandemic and everyone is quarantined!
I figured over our sessions I would be talking about the recent COVID-19 related losses which were the main source of my sadness, but little did I know that all the emotions I had been feeling stemmed from trauma I experienced in my childhood. For a long time, I have been very passionate about helping children navigate through their emotions because it was not something that I was encouraged to do as a child. As the weeks passed, and quarantine continued, the thought of how hard this must be for my elementary students stuck at home would not escape me. Soon after school’s closing I began receiving emails from all types of youth-servicing agencies on creating trauma-informed environments. I chose to attend many of these trainings, however between the trainings and the commercials on hotlines to help manage anxiety and depression during isolation I became infuriated.
Yes, having these services available and for free is great, but what happens to the 2nd grader who is experiencing secondary trauma because their parent is an essential worker and they can’t call a hotline to express their fears of their parent getting sick. Or the ten-year-old who has lost loved ones to COVID-19. Too often the mental health of children is an afterthought. Since schools and after-school programs were closed, I can’t stop thinking about all the children, which often come from low-income communities, who are living in situations that unfortunately are traumatizing them daily. As a program director I have my staff reach out to our participants twice weekly for emotional check-ins, yet personally that does not seem to be enough.
When thinking about childhood trauma often the thought that comes to mind is abuse. People need to understand that isolating children from their teachers, peers, and all the other people in their lives, for many children can be traumatizing. For school-age children, missing out on play with their peers is taking a toll on them and eventually can affect their development of close relationships outside the family.
Building relationships with the youth is at the core of all services as youth program providers. My worry is that the focus during the current pandemic is getting young people back to school in September while not really thinking about the shift that has occurred or what is going to be needed to help children heal from this traumatic event affecting us all. Don’t get me wrong, children’s experiences with the pandemic will vary, and yes NYC youth are very resilient, but this should not be the reason that their mental well-being is disregarded.
Children have been experiencing trauma for ages, the pandemic should not be the reason why trauma-informed care matters now. Then there are the budget cuts! Our children are always hit first and often hit the hardest. If there is a time when the government need to prioritize youth, the time is now. I don’t want to paint the picture that there is something wrong with our children, but I do want to acknowledge that something is happening to them and as youth workers it is our responsibility to advocate that their mental well-being and healing post- COVID-19 is prioritized. As the saying goes, it is easier to build strong and may I add happy children than it is to repair broken adults.
I started my healing in my mid-thirties and the pandemic has continually reminded me that I don’t want the children in this city to repeat my story. As educators and youth development professionals, we must unite and call on our government to invest the money that is clearly available on the healing of our children upon returning to school.
I am a Senior Site Director with University Settlement Society of New York. I have been in youth development since 2004. I am scheduled to receive my Masters in Youth Studies this semester, at the end of May 2020.