By Pamela Rentz and Malaya Mason
Youth leaders in high schools across Staten Island say that some of the biggest challenges facing their generation-- especially amidst the past two years of social unrest and a global pandemic-- are maintaining mental health and fighting racial inequities.
Youth mental health issues have been on the rise since before the COVID-19 pandemic, and have only worsened since then, with increases in requests for mental health services, rates of depression and in suicide attempts, according to research on the topic.
On Staten Island, borough youth have been working together since March as part of an ongoing effort to hear and highlight the voices and experiences of youth on these topics. The group of about a dozen diverse, cross-island teens, organized by the Staten Island Partnership for Community Wellness (SIPCW), will continue to meet this summer, with the hope of bringing back what they learn to their high schools and communities.
For the students, talking about mental health issues and racial injustice in their lives was a natural, and often overlapping, fit.
Racial segregation and the Staten Island “Mason-Dixon Line”
Staten Island has been racially divided for decades. The Staten Island Expressway, the major highway that connects the North Shore and South Shore, is sometimes referred to locally as “The Mason Dixon Line” to signify the difference in racial diversity on either side.
Staten Island is more white (62%) than the rest of New York City ( 32%) , and the South Shore reflects that. The North Shore of Staten Island, however, is more racially diverse, with more Asian (nearly 9%), Black (more than 21%), and Latinx (more than 30%) people, and fewer white (36%) people.
The Mason-Dixon line refers to the division of the racially diverse northern section of the borough from the predominantly white southern part, The Staten Island Expressway marks the separation and though the island is predominantly white overall, it holds the largest number of white residents out of all of the five New York boroughs according to the 2010 census.
Staten Island youth on the North Shore say they have experienced discrimination based on where they live.
“When I would tell people I live on the North Shore, I’d get judged immediately or looked at differently,” said Justin Soyka, 18, who recently graduated from Curtis High School and now attends Borough of Manhattan Community College. “That can put a stigma onto somebody.”
The North Shore, with its racially diverse population, is considered “the ghetto,” Soyka said, while South Shore residents are usually perceived as more “bougie, or fancy.”
“Some people there are… a little racist or have a close-minded view,” he added.
Racial inequities, microaggressions and bullying
Bullying of any form negatively affects the mental health and emotional growth of all kids, with students who are bullied more likely to experience depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ stopbullying.gov.
Bullying in Staten Island schools is not uncommon: More than half of students in the district report that there is bullying, harassment and intimidation at their schools, according to the NYC Department of Education’s most recent student survey.
About one-third of Staten Island students said kids sometimes or most of the time harass, bully or intimidate each other on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity or nationality, according to the same survey. About the same percentage of students report harassment and bullying due to gender or sexual orientation.
Malaya Mason is a rising high school junior in Washington, D.C. Pam Rentz is a third-year journalism student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and a UHMP intern.