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Belonging, Inclusion, and Mental Health

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Belonging is an innate human need. Everybody wants to feel like they belong. And it turns out that belonging brings benefits for our well-being across the board. Without it, we can feel lost, alone, and struggle to find meaning in life.

Having a sense of belonging is the foundation for a life of satisfaction, happiness, mental and physical health. But we’re seeing cracks widening in that foundation now due to ongoing inequity, racial bias, and pandemic hardships.

The harm being caused by separation, isolation, distancing, disruption, and distress is cause for alarm. And a recent public health advisory from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy highlights the crisis.

Effects on young people

Dr. Murthy notes that “mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real, and they are widespread.”

  • 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms
  • 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms
  • Increase in negative emotions such as irritability
  • More negative behaviors such as impulsivity
  • Rise in adolescent suicide attempts

While the findings are alarming, there are ways we can all step up to address the issues.

What you can do to support belonging and inclusion

Belonging helps young people develop self-confidence and a sense of identity. They need safe spaces to work on that. Where their culture, their language, their abilities, their interests, and their choices are supported and affirmed.

  1. Consider your program spaces – A welcoming space, whether physical or virtual, warming reflects the cultures and interests of the young people that participate.
  2. Provide social and emotional skill building – There are all kinds of games and activities you can easily add in to your any type of programming that you already do. Anything that helps young people develop empathy and respect contributes to inclusion and promotes belonging.
  3. Work on your inclusion skills – You can start by reminding yourself of a time you felt excluded and then reflect on how that made you feel. What did you do about it? What did you wish other people had helped you do to address it? Now use those self-reflection insights to add new strategies to your youth work practice.

As a youth worker, you know the value of developing positive relationships. Everyone in a young person’s life can play an important role in modeling, fostering, and building positive relationships. When young people begin to build their own relationships and create positive connections, they gain confidence and learn how to seek help when needed.

Help is needed now more than ever. And you are already engaged in the work. Are you ready to take it to the next level?

Be a Blessing

Take a deep breath. Imagine yourself as whole and perfect for this time and this need. Step into your wholeness. From that center, you can give help and healing gifts to everyone. Your friends, your family, your coworkers, the young people you walk beside, the strangers you see on your path every day. All of them, just like you, need to know they belong.

And all of us, just like you, already know how to make that happen. Be a blessing.

YIPA offers a highly-rated On-Demand training called Cultural Intelligence in Youth Work. This training is free to YIPA members and offers excellent information and insights to bring to your belonging and inclusion toolkit.

Barbara Van Deinse is the operations director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us!