Pandemic disengagement widens gap for some boys: psychologist says they question their value, worth

A psychologist is bringing a greater sense of urgency to finding solutions for boys hit with pandemic stress and disengagement from schools.

According to Dr. Valerie Knowles, a clinical psychologist who specializes in mental and behavioral health in children, adolescents and their families, the country must not ignore its male students who experienced academic disparities, violence and difficult living arrangements even before the onset of COVID-19.

“Before the pandemic, there was anger and frustration when individuals in this group grappled with poor school adjustment, academic underachievement and strong histories of suspensions. Continued discouragement may have developed into an acute sense of inadequacy and incompetence, along with a fragile sense of belonging. These could all be complicated by shame, especially if he lived in a ‘tingsy’ social group – a group driven by materialism where his masculinity was defined by the things he could give,” said Knowles, who has worked with rehabilitation and reintegration programs for boys as a former school and corrections psychologist within different government ministries.

Even before the fallout of pandemic-linked crises, there were groups of boys struggling to regulate their emotions. Some were overexposed to violence.

“They had either witnessed deaths, beatings, or other forms of assault; heard of plans to murder or harm someone; had seen or been involved with fighting that involved beating victims with blunt objects about the head and body; stabbing a victim multiple times; experiencing blood splatter on themselves; stomping and kicking a victim when down,” said the psychologist who has counseled juveniles in conflict with the law and worked with troubled adults.

“Some boys were coping with flashbacks of past violent scenes. Some had repeated thoughts about executing revenge. On a daily basis, some struggled with a sense of powerlessness in the face of gang violence in their neighborhoods.”

Violent encounters take a heavy toll. Others, she said, could be grappling with guilt or be tormented by the vicious death of loved ones and have not properly grieved their loss. For those with gang affiliation, who had hurt opposing gang members, anxieties could exist about retaliation.

“Added to the above challenges, there is financial strain. Even before finishing high school, in some cases, there is the demand for him to work and take care of himself and contribute to the upkeep of the house and the relationships he is in,” said Knowles.

“Increasing frustration can be noted when the young man compares his plight to his peers who are not experiencing these challenges and setbacks. There may be a sense of perceived injustice that can trigger anger. For this category of young men, if life was challenging before COVID, it has become worst now creating a heightened vulnerability to ‘melting down’ and falling through the cracks.”

Recently, Minister of State for Education, Technical and Vocational Training, Zane Lightbourne reported a plunge in virtual school attendance. Up to 30 percent of public-school students have not been consistently logging into classes. It is uncertain how many were males.

Amid all the upheaval, losing their sense of belonging and connectedness to their school life, complicated by the continued demands for young boys to ‘man up’ under the stress, Knowles posed a poignant question: “How do we prevent these boys from ‘melting down’ and unleashing their unresolved distress in a destructive way?”

Violence, she said, destroys the victim as well as the perpetrator. Thus, prevention is the first step. Still, outside of schools, reaching these young men is challenging. They are unlikely to seek out counseling, listen to traditional presentations or share their thoughts with others.

What they need, said Knowles, is social and emotional support, job development, mentoring and an outlet for airing and channeling their stress loads. She suggested a strategy to help them regain their footing similar to the country’s HIV prevention plan, where scores of multi-sectorial, multi-skilled teams of peers and adults scoured the community, leaving no stones unturned in holistically targeting and creating interventions to tackle the root causes and the symptoms of HIV.

“There was no escaping the HIV interventions. In a similar vein, we need to become relentless in the pursuit of rescuing our boys. Invest in finding them. Invest in sharing male-friendly, stress reduction, anti-violence education messages and interventions. Invest in educational retooling. The challenge is to find a team of personnel who are committed to going and meeting the boys and men where they are, literally and figuratively. It may mean having to go to beaches, bars and barbershops, construction sites and playing dominoes and basketball on parks and under trees or other gathering spaces in the communities,” the psychologist suggested.

“We must team up to find resources to help male students strengthen their capacity to deal with the disruptions of life. For instance, more intentional and structured organized music, sports, recreation, technical-vocational training, spiritual awareness training with a masculine flair. These all contribute to securing the mental health and wellness of our boys.”

Knowles encourages adults to recognize and respect a boy’s childhood by not prematurely saddling him with demands for money, gifts or support. Equally important, allowing young men to share their feelings and help them to establish stronger foundations for future prosperity.

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