Mind, body, and spirit: the Y’s commitment to supporting youth mental health
(Content warning: This story contains mention of suicide and suicidal ideation.)
When Jill Doerner, Chief Learning Officer at the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, observed the sharp increase in campers expressing thoughts of suicide and other forms of self-injury this summer, it confirmed her suspicions about the psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children.
“We saw firsthand how the stresses brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have manifested themselves among kids,” Doerner said. “Typically we receive one, maybe two, reports of suicide ideation among campers over a summer. This year, we had almost five times that number of reports of youth having suicidal thoughts or self-harm within the first three weeks of camp, indicating an urgent need for professional support.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), youth and young adults—particularly those belonging to a racial or ethnic minority—have experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes and elevated suicidal ideation due to pandemic-related stressors.
As a community asset, the YMCA of Metro Chicago exists to listen and respond to the needs of the diverse children, families, and communities we serve. Across our programs and services, the Y emphasizes mental health by providing resources for parents and guardians, designing curriculum rooted in healthy child development, and training staff in trauma-informed care.
To address the acute and pressing need for psychological support among Chicagoland’s youth, we have also recently hired a Behavioral Support Manager. Our Association’s Behavioral Support Manager will work alongside center and camp staff at all of our locations to plan and implement strategies that help children and teens navigate issues like bullying, anxiety, and depression.
Additionally, the YMCA of Metro Chicago’s Out of School Time (OST) and Youth Safety and Violence Prevention (YSVP) programs provide positive outlets for young people to be their most authentic selves. Surrounded by peers and adults in an environment anchored by the Y’s core values of caring, honesty, respect, and responsibility, youth in our programs know they’re not alone.
“We as a nation need to address the mental and emotional toll that COVID has had on our children, not just during National Suicide Prevention Week but always," Doerner said. "At the Y, our foremost responsibility is to make sure our kids have safe, trusted spaces where they can heal, grow, and process life's changes together.”
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or 1-888-628-9454 (en español) for confidential support.