1. Let's say you and your 4-year-old son live in Los Angeles.

You enjoy your life there. Your friends; your family; the balmy, sunny weather; how you meet people of all shades, sexual orientations, and genders. There is no judgment. Difference is normal.

The only thing your graduate degree prepared you to be is a college professor. But competition for jobs is fierce in Los Angeles, so you apply for five professorships around the country. After three rounds of interviews, you are offered an assistant professorship in a faraway Midwestern town that is, you learn after a quick internet search, not nearly as diverse as L.A. But you say yes to the job.


The first thing you do is look up all the preschools in the area. You call and ask about their educational curriculum; they all sound great. Then you ask, of course, if they have any black students. You do not have the luxury of not asking this, of not being direct. You have to know that your son will not be the only person in his school who looks like him. You know from your own experience the dangerous vulnerability of being the only one.

Of the six schools you call, only one says that they have any black students — five children out of 150. None of the schools have any permanent, full-time black teachers on staff. You think of the ramifications of this. Studies (and plain common sense) have shown that children do better when they can see older role models who look like them and that teachers of color are necessary for development and growth.

2. When you arrive in your new city, you realize this is the first time in your life you have seen Confederate flags waving proudly.

You knock on the doors of neighbors to prospective houses to see how they'll react to you. With the help of a queer couple who has befriended you, who did this same thing when they first moved to the town, you learn how to read clues to see which of your new neighbors will be allies, what spaces you can count on to be safe.

This is the essence of straight white privilege: to not have to worry that your neighbors will be violent toward you because of the color of your skin; to not have to assess each neighborhood for signs of racism or homophobia to make sure you and your children will be safe.

3. When you pick up your son from preschool, his hair is full of dirt and leaves.

The white assistant teacher tells you that the staff raked piles of leaves for the students to jump into. But they could not comb your son's hair because the texture of his black hair is too different, too coarse. You tell her you comb his hair every morning and night just fine. There is a pause, and then the teacher wanders away.

You remember how, as a child, your father told you the teachers at Sunday school refused to comb your hair or change your diapers because they didn't want to touch black babies. You thought things had changed since then. You guess you were wrong.

4. On the playground, you and your son are playing in the sandbox.

An older white girl, about 11 years old, begins to play with your son. You comment to her mother how well her daughter is playing with your son; she is so considerate, you say. The mother tells you her daughter is good now, but she used to have problems with the coloreds. Your brain stutters; you tell yourself she meant colors. So you ask what problem she had with colors — painting? Drawing?

The girl's mother tells you the problem was with colored people. The girl's father, you see, is very racist, and the girl picked it up from him. She, the mother, had to work to stop it and tell her daughter that the coloreds were just like them. Why, even her best friend is black. You are stunned into silence. You have never been called "colored people."

You wonder if you should explain to this woman exactly what's wrong with what she just said; if you should spend precious energy educating yet another white person about racism just to get them to treat you like a person.

You realize to survive here you cannot hold on; you must learn to let go. But you can't. How these people see your skin is the difference between whether they will choose to pull the trigger or to holster their gun. These things are life and death.

5. At home, your son says another teacher told him if he washes his brown skin, he will grow lighter and not be black.

You are livid. You want to throw things. You still feel the weight of hearing comments exactly like this when you were a child over 30 years ago. You thought things would be different by now.

You think of all the things you want to say to the employees at the school. But you know if you rage, they will get defensive. This is the bitter pill black people must swallow; you cannot express your emotions because you have to protect the feelings of the white people involved in the situation. Otherwise they will shut down, and you will accomplish nothing.

No, you must always be the bigger person. You must be the one to explain to the director and the teacher why such comments are unacceptable, explain that they need diversity and inclusivity training for both the teachers and the students. It is your job to lay out, step by step, why things like this cannot be said — why things like this can never happen again.

Even after all of that, the preschool director refuses to enact any changes in the school program. You cry. You dry your eyes. You pick yourself up and advocate for your son again. You create a three-part plan for diversity and inclusion and present it to the school. After a week of emailing and prevarication, they agree to hold a diversity and inclusion seminar. You realize this will be the next 12 years of your life.

6. But you know that talking to schools about diversity is different from schools actually having diversity.

A friend tells you that a fight broke out at her son's school and the teacher walked over to the only black boy and said, "The next time you cause trouble, boy, I'm going to call the police on you." The boy was 6 years old. The school never bothered to tell his mother.

You have seen this story repeated all around the country. Sometimes, the black baby is handcuffed or jailed; sometimes beaten, sometimes killed. For black children, the school — no, the preschool to prison pipeline is very real.

You thought you could protect your baby through your presence. You have gone to every school function. You talk to all the teachers and parents. You want them to know there is someone paying attention to make sure your son is treated equally.

But still, it is happening; your vigilance is not enough. Only when equality becomes truly universal — not just in laws but in small interactions, in classrooms, in neighborhoods — will your son ever actually be safe.

This story originally appeared in Dame Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.

Connections Academy

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

True

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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