When quarantine began in March of 2020, psychologists warned that children- and especially teens- would endure a heavy emotional and developmental price for the lockdown.  Now as data has come out from the nonprofit FAIR Health, we’re seeing the situation was worse than we imagined.  The lack of contact with friends, in-person learning, and missing out on milestones has caused a heavy rise in depression, anxiety, and even self harm.  The data shows a 50% increase in depression rates, 67% in generalized anxiety disorders, and alarmingly a 334% spike in intentional self-harm among 13-18 year olds.

For our teens in Chicago, school has remained virtual for over a year now.  We sat down with Lamar Simms, Director of High School programs, for a Q&A about how the teens he has relationships with are coping.

 

Holly:  Lamar, thanks for taking time to meet!  Let’s go back to March of 2020.  Tell me what life was like before the lock-down began?

Lamar Simms, Director of High School Programs

Lamar:  So, at that time we had goals of building our program up to 30 students. We were consistently having 20+ coming to the program and (5) to bible study.  Obviously we didn’t know what to expect when lockdown first happened, or how long it would last.

Holly:  I know you quickly pivoted to online options for teens once everyone had to go into lockdown.   Tell me a little bit about the months that followed…

 

Lamar: The next few months were a struggle as we tried to stay connected with teens and keep them motivated and engaged.  Unfortunately a lot of them just stopped communicating.  

 

Holly:  We know that the data is showing that teens across the board are struggling with mental health.  Have you found this to be the case with the teens you work with?

Lamar:  Yes!  Many of our teens struggle with mental health.  They already carry so much for their age, and the pandemic has pushed them to the brink.

They already carry so much for their age, and the pandemic has pushed them to the brink.

Holly:  What are some of the areas they’re struggling most?

Lamar:  So many, really.  Academically we’re seeing lower grades across the board.  Some have effectively stopped going to school all together.  Teens that are normally A/B students are now seeing low grades, like C’s, for the first time. I know we’re also seeing this pattern in our middle school and elementary students.  But in addition to the academic struggles, many of our teens are treated as adults.   They  are responsible for helping their younger siblings with online school,  some also carry the weight of needing to work full-time outside of school.  The majority of our teens live in multi-unit apartment buildings so spreading out to have space for online school is challenging. And that’s not taking into account the weight the carry from primary and *secondary trauma in their community.

 

Holly:  I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for them to stay engaged and motivated in school!

Lamar:  Yes, I heard many of them say (quite early on, in fact) that they were resigned to just losing a year of their lives.  At this age, losing a year academically puts them so far behind.  Some won’t graduate.  For those that do and go on to attend college, they may not be able to understand or keep up.

 

Holly:  I know you’ve tried really hard to help them stay motivated.  What are some successes this year?

Lamar:   I’ve been able to advocate for a few of my students to their parents to get them in therapy.  That’s a big win.  We also have developed a smaller, but really solid core group of teens that are really motivated to grow in their faith.  They faithfully login for weekly bible study.  That’s a pretty big deal for high schoolers!

We also have developed a smaller, but really solid core group of teens that are really motivated to grow in their faith.

Holly:  That’s amazing.  I love seeing how God has worked to draw them closer to Him in a real way during this past year!  What bible study lessons have stuck out to you most?

 

Lamar:  A specific bible lesson that sticks out from this year was learning about the different writing styles in the bible. Our teens were very fascinated with the complexity of the bible. The study allowed them to see the bible differently than they have before.

 

Holly:  Recently you’ve been able to start meeting in person.  How has that been?

Lamar: As soon as the city opened up for small indoor gatherings, I advocated for our programs to be in person again!  On Monday we have game night.  On Wednesdays we do deeper discussions around faith and mental health.  We’re seeing a strong turn-out each week.  They just desperately want and need in-person connection.

Recently Lamar hosted a virtual college fair at Sunshine

 

Holly:  I’m so glad you’ve been able to grow deeper relationships with some of these teens.  What are you looking forward to in the future?

Lamar: This summer we’re running our WorkLife Program, which trains and places teens in jobs and we’re hoping to continue that through the school year.  We’re also planning to take them to summer camp in Michigan with YoungLife.  That week at camp is such a pivotal week for some of them.  They hear the Gospel in new ways but also get to just experience life as a care-free teen.  It’s so important to allow them these experiences outside the city.

 

Holly:  What are ways people can support you?

Lamar:  There are a few ways to support us!

  1. If you want to sponsor one of our campers to go to camp, the cost is $600 per student.  We’re hoping to take 12-15 this year.   
  2. Volunteer!  We are always looking for more mentors to help academically and spiritually disciple and support our teens.  You can email me if you’re interested- lamar@sunshinegospel.org
  3. You can pray for us!

 

Holly:  Lamar, thank you so much for the way you connect with and influence our teens for Christ.  Your role in their lives is so crucial!

 

If you would like to support one of our teens to attend summer camp, click here.

*Secondary trauma is defined as indirect exposure to trauma through a firsthand account or narrative of a traumatic event.