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Healthy Living

What Wellness Doesn’t Look Like: The Optics And Impact Of Violence On Young People’s Health

What are the biggest barriers to wellness young people face? The findings of a new five-city Center for Promise study of young people by young people might surprise you. Here’s one Boston youth researcher’s perspective.

By: Chaurice McMillan

As a child, I knew certain streets were dangerous, that police could not be trusted, and that stepping on someone’s shoes on the bus could get you killed. Community violence was normal to me, but not to my peers at school. They lived in safer neighborhoods and had never even heard a gunshot before.

Going to school in a different community made me feel alone when it came to issues like violence. My friends couldn’t even come over because their parents feared my neighborhood was too dangerous.

It turns out I wasn’t alone at all.

In the Barriers to Wellness study, my fellow researchers and I discovered that 81 percent of the young people we surveyed in Boston feel impacted by community violence. When we asked them how violence impacts them, many said that young people repeat what they see happening around them, that they lose people they care about, and that there are bad influences in the media and in their families. The majority of participants said they do not feel safe in their own communities.

This research showed me that violence turns communities into unhealthy living environments.

What Wellness Does Not Look Like

Prior to doing this project, if the topic of health and wellness was brought up, I would think about eating healthy food and exercising. Now I think more about mental health and what overall wellness looks like—or more precisely, what it doesn’t look like.

Community wellness does not look like 59 percent of youth disagreeing with “young people can go to the police if they need help.”

Wellness does not look like 48 percent disagreeing that young people in their community feel safe.

Community wellness does not look like 53 percent of participants saying that they disagree with the statement, “Young people in my community have access to healthy and affordable food.”

This project showed me that there is a lot to fix, but it also gave me hope, because 62 percent of the young people in my community believe that they have the power to change the community. But they need help from adults.

What We See Affects How We Act

It’s hard to have conversations with people who think that me saying my life matters means their life doesn’t.

It’s difficult to explain to people who don’t understand why the black community is angered by police violence but not black-on-black crime. To me, it’s easy to understand the difference between killing someone because of the color of their skin and killing someone because you feel like your life depends on it.

It’s hard, too, to stand by your opinion when there aren’t many people who look like you in power, in school or college, or doing positive things in the media. Many do not have black teachers to represent students in black communities.

We asked participants how feeling represented, or not represented, impacts their health and wellness. They said not being represented can make people feel unimportant, misunderstood, lost, and confused. These feelings will not help students be successful.

The Power of Positive Influence

On the other hand, being represented makes students feel empowered and motivated. The youth in my community need adults to support us in every way possible and to show other adults why it’s important to listen to us.

A lot of young people believe we can make a change if we have community gatherings. We need the adults in our communities to participate in these events. We also need the adults from our communities to amplify our voices, because some will not listen to young people. I believe that the best support we could have would be positive influences.

We all have the power to make changes, but young people hold the future in their hands. What are you doing to ensure that the youth around you feel like they have the power to make a difference? What images are you showing them? How can you be more of a positive influence toward young people’s well-being?

The future is asking.

This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English language-learners, students of color and students with disabilities.

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Chaurice McMillan, 18, plans to attend Lesley University in the spring. Influenced by her research in Boston, Chaurice plans on becoming a teacher to be a positive influence for people who look like her.