Alabama businesses respond to CDC data on pandemic youth mental health threats

New Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyses illuminate American high school students’ mental health challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a group of Birmingham businesses and the A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club are responding.

One of the CDC’s main findings: In 2021, more than one-third of U.S. high school students (37%) said they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, while 44% said they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.

Recognizing this crisis, representatives from Alabama Power, Altec Inc., Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, Coca-Cola Bottling Company United and Vulcan Materials Company have partnered with the A.G. Gaston club to help address this issue.

The companies’ representatives and the club have teamed up to provide listening sessions and guest speakers to better understand the emotional needs of teenagers involved in the club’s Smart Girls and Passport to Manhood cohorts. The partnership is meant to support mental health awareness and provide solutions in the near and long term to build a healthy and resilient next generation of future leaders.

On April 27, the partnership hosted a Teen Mental Health Summit designed to create an engaging environment for counseling resources to be provided, along with physical and mental health best practices.

“It’s important for your mind, your body and your spirit to all be healthy,” said Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s Krysten Holloway. “When one is not aligned, the other ones are not either. … To say that you need help is not a bad thing. To say that ‘I need to talk to somebody’ is not a bad thing.”

A.G. Gaston Boys & Girls Club, partners introduce app to help youth cope with feelings from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

During the summit, the group unveiled a first-of-its-kind web app to help address mental health. This secure web app, named Spree by the Smart Girls and Passport to Manhood cohorts, provides tools including:

  • Articles on specific issues, including depression and anxiety, healthy eating and focused habits.
  • A live journal feature to document and share feelings and emotions.
  • Resource opportunities to seek care and treatment.

Devin Posey, chief operating officer of the A.G. Gaston club, said the app lets the teenagers know they have someone they can talk with.

“It’ll be just like their open-book journal,” he said. “They’ll have a chance to talk to someone indirectly, but if it’s one of those situations that needs to be talked about face to face, whether it’s concerning their health or safety issues, we can really go in that portal and look.”

Jack Bonnikson, Strategic Issues manager for Alabama Power’s Public Relations department, said the companies’ representatives want to “be supportive and help build a lasting legacy of strong minds that are committed to service to the community.”

“I hope more than anything else these children feel empowered and strong and ready to give back and understand the community that they live in and live in a life of service for one another,” he said. “I don’t want any child to feel like they are alone or that they don’t have the ability to grow up and be what they want to be.”

The Teen Mental Health Summit was timely, given the CDC’s survey findings released in late March. Other results:

  • More than half of students (55%) reported being emotionally abused by a parent or other adult in the home, while 11% said they experienced physical abuse.
  • Almost one in five students (19.9%) had seriously considered suicide, and 9% said they had attempted suicide.
  • Almost three in 10 students (20%) reported a parent or other adult in their home lost a job.
  • More than a third (36%) of students said they experienced racism before or during the COVID-19 pandemic. The highest levels were reported among Asian students (64%), Black students and students of multiple races (both 55%).

“These data echo a cry for help,” CDC Acting Principal Deputy Director Debra Houry said in a news release. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental well-being.”

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. To learn more about the month and to find mental health resources, click here.

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