'To Sir, With Love': The world bids farewell to actor and civil rights icon Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier passed away Friday at the age of 94.

The world has lost a brilliant giant of a man, one who left an indelible mark on the entertainment world and society at large. Sidney Poitier, actor, director and civil rights icon, has passed away at age 94. The first Black actor to win an Academy Award, he was a trailblazer and barrier breaker, in addition to being undeniably charismatic in his signature, almost understated way.

Sidney Poitier was smooth without being smarmy, persuasive without being pedantic and stately without being snooty. He could command attention and respect with a thoughtful monologue or with a simple, unwavering gaze. He was uncompromising in his principles, speaking out for civil rights and turning down projects that didn't align with his character and values. He was grace and dignity personified.


Born as the youngest of seven children in a tomato-farming family in the Bahamas, he went from having no electricity or running water to becoming one of the most renowned actors of all time. Poitier overcame all manner of obstacles, from poverty to racism, to gain his place in American history and the accolades he's received are well-deserved.

Those who knew him personally are sharing their tributes to him today. May we all live lives that prompt such glowing praise of our person and our mark on the world.

Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier met in Harlem before either of them had made it big, and became lifelong friends. “For over 80 years, Sidney and I laughed, cried and made as much mischief as we could,” said Harry Belafonte in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “He was truly my brother and partner in trying to make this world a little better. He certainly made mine a whole lot better.”

Oprah Winfrey has often gushed about her appreciation of Sidney Poitier, from before their first meeting through the decades-long friendship they formed. "For me, the greatest of the 'Great Trees' has fallen," Winfrey wrote in a statement shared on Twitter. "My honor to have loved him as a mentor. Friend. Brother. Confidant. Wisdom teacher. The utmost, highest regard and praise for his most magnificent, gracious, eloquent life. I treasured him. I adored him. He had an enormous soul I will forever cherish."

Tyler Perry shared a tribute on Facebook, writing, "The grace and class that this man has shown throughout his entire life, the example he set for me, not only as a black man but as a human being will never be forgotten. There is no man in this business who has been more of a North Star for me than Sidney Poitier."

Actress Octavia Spencer shared the story of her meeting Sidney Poitier after she won an award. She was "shell shocked and sweaty," but he stopped, smiled and congratulated her. "He told me he expected great things from me," she wrote. "There’s something about hearing those words from a pioneer that changes you! Thank you, Mr. Poitier!! I’ve been riding high ever since!!

Disney CEO Robert Iger wrote, "Sidney Poitier was the most dignified man I’ve ever met. Towering…gentle…passionate…bold…kind…altogether special."

“It was a privilege to call Sidney Poitier my friend. He was a gentleman and opened doors for all of us that had been closed for years. God bless him and his family," Denzel Washington shared in a statement according to the Associated Press.

Poitier will be remembered and honored for his talent, wisdom and dignified forthrightness. There will never be another quite like him.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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