Thrive-U Youth Highlight Mental Health Concerns of South Carolina Students Amid Remote Learning

By Radiah Jamil, Kayla Johnson and Sarah Meehan

Students from Gaffney High School and Ewing Middle School are planning to launch a podcast about mental health challenges, and scheduling meetings with town and county officials to keep the voices of youth at the forefront of decisions that affect them.

“Youth [have] been going through a lot with depression, stress, drug and alcohol abuse, academic problems, bullying, violence and lack of adult support,” said Cortez Dawkins, a rising senior at Gaffney High School. 

Cherokee County teachers and community leaders heard these concerns when the students gathered in May to discuss the deterioration of students’ mental health during the pandemic, as well as steps school officials and parents could take to provide better support. The eight-student panel shared how the pandemic exacerbated depression, anxiety, substance use, a lack of belonging, bullying and academic challenges among their classmates, all while a disconnect grew between students’ lived experiences and parents’ and teachers’ understanding of them. 

Moderated by Christina Cody, Cherokee County School District’s project lead for its Fit2Gether wellness initiative, the discussion was rebroadcast via social media several days later, when the students took additional questions from teachers, Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce leaders, Cherokee County Council representatives and other community members. The leaders encouraged the students to bring their concerns and ideas for improving education to local business and legislative organizations, and have since reached out to include youth in decision-making through their boards, Cody said.

“You’ve got some support,” Cody told the panelists during their second gathering. “Not all youth can step up… they’re struggling. So you carry a torch for a lot of people behind you.”

The panel was hosted by Thrive-U, a branch of the student wellness initiative Fit2Gether, which works to transform education to better serve students through youth voice, wellness and equity. America’s Promise Alliance, a national network of groups designed to improve conditions for young people, sponsored the event as part of a series of events exploring the states of young people across the country. 

Thrive-U first met virtually in late January, followed by meetings at least twice a month. Now, they’re spending the summer collecting video stories from their peers, planning student-led professional development for teachers and school staff, scheduling meetings with local leaders, and preparing their first podcast episode to launch in time for the start of the school year.

Apart from the decrease in recognition of mental health problems, the students worried about a lack of resources — from access to professional mental health counseling to simply having another person to talk to, especially for students without supportive home environments.

Zorriya Bridges, a rising senior at Gaffney High School, said some school staff do not always prioritize students’ mental health concerns, and instead write off issues like depression or anxiety as phases. 

“I don’t think depression is really taken seriously,” she said. “It’s invalidating my mental health.”

The panelists urged their peers who might be struggling to seek help if they felt the pressures of mental health struggles or academics were too great.

Although the students said they felt parents and teachers did not understand their experiences, adults who tuned into the rebroadcast of the meeting encouraged the youth to bring their concerns to community organizations that can help affect change.

“We hope that youth realize that they are already leaders, that they deserve power in decisions that affect them and that they are experts in their lived experiences,” Cody said in an email. “We also hope that youth feel that there are people here to help when there is need, that youth are not alone, and that youth impact is the most impactful movement in our community.”

Radiah Jamil of New York City and Kayla Johnson of Philadelphia are high school students who worked with former Baltimore Sun reporter and Urban Health Media Project instructor Sarah Meehan on this story.