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For some youth, COVID is the least of their worries

If you saw yesterday’s post, you know I spent time recently with local mental health professionals asking about how children and young adults are coping, what they struggle with most, and how parents, guardians and professionals can help.

I learned a lot about these topics, but I also heard clearly that for some youth, COVID-19 isn’t even on the radar. Not because it isn’t impacting them, but because it’s so far down on their list of stressors as to be almost imperceptible.

What these children worry about, Renee Ledbetter told us, are things like: Are they going to have something to eat today? Are they going to have a place to live next week? Are they going to get locked up next week? Are they going to get shot?

Ledbetter directs New Bedford Shannon, a United Way of Greater New Bedford program that operates in partnership with the New Bedford Police Department. Through the program, she and her staff work with at-risk city youth between the ages of 10 and 24, offering outreach, intervention services, and support.

It’s not an exaggeration to say NBS youth are making life or death decisions regularly, according to Ledbetter. The death of a young girl in February sadly made this clear.

“We just buried a 17-year-old last Friday,” Ledbetter said. “A 17-year-old girl because of violence. These are the things that (NBS youth) are worried about.”

“So does it matter whether COVID’s around or not?” she continued, with an audible shrug. “Covid has just made it more difficult, so therefore they’ve become a little bit more angry and frustrated.”

Help & Hope Southcoast was created on the message that help exists and can be accessed by just reaching for it. But for NBS children and young adults, there are multiple barriers to overcome to just begin thinking this way.

The youth Ledbetter works with often negotiate obstacles and make major life decisions without consistent family support. Because of their age, and sometimes their cultural experiences, they don’t expect help or consider getting help for their emotional or mental well-being.

Often, Ledbetter said, needing therapy is perceived as being weak.

“They're not going to seek out mental health help. So we have to introduce them to that,” she said.

NBS staff are not counselors, but they become mentors to the youth they work with. They can leverage these relationships to help steer them toward help when it’s needed.

“When we refer them to counseling, they trust that we tell them that they will be safe in that person’s care,” said Ledbetter.“It’s all about building trust with each of the youth and them being able to put down some of their walls.”

At other times, program staff make the decision for them.

“If you're acting out of sorts, or if you're doing something that's going to hurt you or somebody else, then you don't get to choose whether you attend those resources,” said Ledbetter. “I think it depends on the youth itself and their behaviors, their actions.”

NBS has access to counselors in the city and can make referrals, including through Child & Family Services Crisis Center. They’re also working on creating access through High Point Treatment Center.

If Ledbetter had her way, she’d give each and every child their own personal therapist or mentor, both now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and into the long term future.

Like the 17-year-old girl who died recently, she knows there are some tragedies youth are facing that won’t go away with a vaccine.

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