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Mary J. Owen

Until recently my daughter was much like any other college kid, still vacillating between different possible careers. One day a lawyer, the next a radiology tech. This past fall she transferred to a state university after having completed two years at a local community college. 

She was becoming a stronger student each semester, seemingly more confident with each phone call. Then came COVID-19. 

My girl, once organized, engaged in her studies, and planning what to do when she graduated was now having difficulty even starting her assignments. She’s not alone. 

I recently read of a small college that had not heard from 70 of its students since they switched to on-line classes in response to statewide shelter at home orders. It’s as if they’ve vanished. And this disconnect isn’t just being seen at the college level. In my local community, teachers have reported significant distress from students in all grades. 

I have young people of all ages in my family who have expressed feeling hopeless and alone since we’ve had to shelter in place. I’m very worried about our youth. It’s not as if the world was a great place for them before COVID-19. 

Already in their young lives, they’ve seen the threat of global warming impacting food supplies and even the ability to exist in some parts of the world. They’ve seen and sometimes experienced massive inequality with some youth living without enough food or shelter. 

They’ve learned that, for many of them, going to college isn’t an option because of cost. Without college, their opportunities are now limited primarily to service industries with low pay, minimal benefits, and little to no power to negotiate either. 

We’ve seen the impact that these and other injustices have on youth. Rates of depression, suicide and deaths of despair were on the rise and had been before COVID-19. 

According to Twenge, Cooper, Joiner, Duffy and Benau, data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reveal that between the years 2005-2017 there was a 52% increase in rates of major depressive episodes in the last year for youth ages 12-17. For youth ages 18-25, there was a 63% increase from the years 2009 -2017. 

The researchers also noted a 71% increase in serious psychological distress among youth ages 18-25 from 2008-2017. 

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According to an October 2019 PBS News Hour report, there has been a 56% increase in suicide attempts among youth ages 10-24 in the past two decades. Again, all of this despair has been going on long before COVID-19. 

But then COVID-19 forced us indoors and away from the human contact that we as social beings need. With schools being forced to close, many students also lost access to safety and food since school is the place where they get a meal and can escape the dysfunction of their homes. 

COVID-19 also took away the routines that keep so many people, youth included, balanced and on track with life. For some, their routines were the only stabilizing force in their lives. For all of these reasons we should be reaching out to young people we know and even those we don’t know. 

It’s easy to assume that others don’t want to be bothered or are uncomfortable talking with us but I don’t think that’s true. My daughter recently realized that she was wrong in her assumption that her younger cousins wouldn’t enjoy talking with her. She and all of her cousins are now having weekly get-togethers on the computer. 

I know several people who are reaching out to young people. I know a Native geoscientist who’s holding weekly talking circles on Zoom with a group of American Indian Science and Engineering students. 

Staff at a local Indigenous science camp are delivering care packages to students who are enrolled in the camp but can’t attend because of COVID-19. A Native student is teaching jingle dancing to classmates and friends via Zoom. 

A fourth-year Native medical student is leading a group of concerned students and educators in an effort to reach out to youth through regular text messaging and social media. 

 Just as we’ve been spreading the important messages about caring for our elders, we must do the same for our youth. 

While they might seem strong and even though, they are still our youth and they need our caring, compassion, and love more than ever. We cannot forget that they are suffering too. 

Mary J. Owen, MD
Association of American Indian Physicians

Dr. Mary Owen is the Director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health and an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth Campus. She teaches on issues in Native American health and mentors future Native American physicians. She is also a family practice physician for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in Duluth, Minnesota.