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Let’s Talk About Mental Health: Big Sky youth speak out on community and mental health

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By Shannon Steele and Ann Kittlaus EBS COLUMNISTS

Editor’s Note: The Big Sky School District’s additional counselor was added to the list of current youth programming.

COVID-19 impacts starting with isolation, loss and anxiety coupled with Big Sky’s rapid growth and tourist surges have created unique challenges for our young people to form the sense of community and connections they crave. As the effects of the pandemic continue to play out in Big Sky, our youth are raising their voices and providing an opportunity for community reflection and response.

Lone Peak High School seniors recently interviewed classmates to find out how they define community and their recent Big Sky experience. Here are some takeaways:

  • It can be hard to feel grounded, to feel a sense of belonging, when everything keeps changing.
  • The expectations of a high performing school are “exhausting.”
  • There is excitement in the wonder of this place and the constant flux of visitors, but there is also a yearning to cling to the present and slow things down.
  • Big Sky is a great place to live as a teen, but more activities for locals are needed outside of school.
  • There’s a disconnection between what others think about Big Sky and what their community, their home, means to them.

A first-year student expressed this loud and clear: “As more people move to join us in our home, the community starts to feel separated. I feel it is extremely important to remember each other and to keep the closeness of our friendships alive!”

When it comes to their hometown, a sophomore summarized for his classmates: “Community means a place where someone is always welcome to come in and to be listened to…. There could be a lot of people that have different thoughts and those thoughts should be respected.”

The long-term effects of the pandemic are still largely unknown and for young people moving from adolescence to adulthood in a rapidly growing community, it is sometimes hard to know what normal is supposed to look and feel like.

Here’s what they want: welcome, inclusion, safety, respect…and FUN!

During the pandemic, high school students found themselves suddenly isolated, less physically active, in charge of their own learning, absorbing adult anxiety, and uncertain about their post-high school prospects. Forget about teenage FOMO, or “fear of missing out”—everyone was missing out. Most increased their screen time, and many increased substance use and experienced a decline in mental health.

A meta-analysis of studies found that one in four youth around the world experienced pandemic-related depression compared to one in 10 pre-pandemic. Symptoms included sadness, hopelessness, lack of interest, pleasure and/or motivation, and physical symptoms affecting sleep, appetite and concentration.

One in five youth experienced anxiety, including excessive worry, physiological hyperarousal and/or debilitating fear. Emergency departments and children’s hospitals saw increases in substance abuse crises. Here in Montana, youth suicides doubled according to Shodair Children’s Hospital in Helena.

The experts tell us that to pull life back together for young people, youth need a return of routines, resources and relationships. They also need their adults to be okay.

The Lone Peak students offered these suggestions: 1) creating spaces for young people to connect, 2) building a positive relationship with oneself, and 3) empowering and being a support for others.

Their struggles have not gone unnoticed. Our community foundations, nonprofit organizations and community leaders have collaborated to provide programming for youth including but not limited to the following:

  • BASE Community Center offers a space for young people to connect, providing daily programming specifically for them. The high schoolers have noticed and are enthusiastic.
  • Shodair will be providing virtual peer-to-peer support groups for young people to connect with other Montana youth around these complex issues.
  • Thrive and Big Brothers Big Sisters continue to offer mentorship and preventative programming, and the Arts Council of Big Sky will begin art classes April 18.
  • Big Sky School District added a school counselor to its workforce and the other learning entities, Morningstar Learning Center and the Big Sky Discovery Academy, are making mental and behavioral health support a top priority.
  • Bozeman Health Big Sky Medical Center offers child and adolescent psychiatric services.
  • Wellness in Action continues to offer support for youth to access counseling and enrichment opportunities, and there’s more support in the works across organizations.
  • BSSD added a school counselor, an addition to the two existing counselors who have continued to support the student community.

On a personal level, adults in the community need to keep checking in on and really listening to not only our young people, but also one another.

There’s so much light and strength within a community that rallies together to address complex mental and behavioral health issues.

Shannon Steele is the behavioral health program officer at the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, and values a collaborative and community-centered approach to mental/behavioral health and wellness. She has a background in mind-body wellness and community health, and is also a certified yoga instructor and active volunteer. Community, wellness and the outdoors have always been pillars in Shannon’s life.

Ann Kittlaus is a writer and communications consultant working with the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation.

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