TERC lecture delves into challenges facing kids

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center hosted a Winter Speaker Series lecture on Thursday, Feb. 11, featuring Peter Mayfield, executive director of Gateway Mountain Center, a 14-year-old nonprofit based in Truckee along with Dana Adams who is a school psychologist for the Truckee Tahoe Unified School District.

The two went into the challenges that local youth are facing during the pandemic.

The nonprofit, Gateway Mountain Center, has been working with youths of all backgrounds to promote education and healing through nature and the community. The nonprofit, based in Truckee works around the lake and throughout Northern California.

During the webinar, Mayfield stressed the importance of authentic relationships, nature connection, embodied peak experiences, and helping others.

“All of these four routes help build self awareness, self efficacy and self confidence,” he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in comparison from 2019 to 2020, the pandemic has had a negative impact on the mental health of children. Mental health related crises visits for children have increased by 24% from ages 5 through 11 and 31% for children 12 to 17 years of age.

Also, California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris recently developed the Roadmap for Resilience: The California Surgeon General’s Report on Adverse Childhood Experiences, Toxic Stress, and Health, which was release at the end of 2020 and presents a map to understand and respond to the impacts of adverse childhood experience and toxic stress through research and medical science.

Supportive relationships, quality sleep, balanced nutrition, physical activity, mindfulness practices, access to nature and mental health care are all part of stress busters that help support kids who are suffering from ACEs according to Harris’ findings.

These correlate with the work of Mayfield at the Gateway Mountain Center.

“In a sense, this pandemic is like a unique ACEs score,” he said.

Mayfield found that kids with caring relationships with a nonparental adult really thrive, connecting it to how humans lived about 2,000 years ago in tribal societies. The focus was on a larger tribe instead of just the immediate family, which Mayfield says the youths thrive from and of course this pandemic has hindered that sort of community social connection.

“It’s not cutting edge therapy, but human connection,” he said.

In more populous cities, teens are statistically more likely to run into another adult on their block, which Mayfield and Adams says is key for human connection.

“In rural areas, there is double the prevalence of anxiety depression, suicidality and hard drug use than there are in urban areas and a lot of people don’t understand that,” Mayfield said. “Up here in our rural area, that is not quite as easy for a lot of our kids and so just connecting to other caring adults can be really helpful, especially as the kids get older.”

Social connection whether through fellow classmates or teachers is a big motivating force for students to show up to class. As the pandemic has shifted school to online platforms, motivation to attend has been a challenge.

Adams, along with several other topics, works on motivation of students to come to school which has been exacerbated due to the pandemic. The pandemic has not only changed the fabric of how students are learning but also socializing and handling mental health.

“Someone had said, ’yeah we’re all on the same ocean we’re all doing this together, but we’re not necessarily on the same boat,’” Adams said.

Adams says that families are all experiencing this shift differently whether it’s several siblings trying to use the same hotspot or parents trying to work from home, students are facing unprecedented challenges associated with the pandemic with school and their mental health.

“I think something with this pandemic that our whole culture and society can improve on is a focus on that of service and the benefits of service, kids and adolescents are really wired for it and they don’t get enough opportunity,” Mayfield said.

Mayfield says that helping others find purpose is key and the benefits of doing acts of service are innumerable. Even helping out on days such as Truckee River Cleanup days are beneficial to youth.

Adams also agrees that kids should engage in activities that are valuable, meaningful and create joy even if it is helping your neighbors by shoveling snow after a storm or helping someone get groceries through the pandemic.

“Finding a sense of purpose can transform us from being complacent to productive resulting in healthier lives and very rich experiences,” said Adams. “And we know it’s hard to motivate them [teenagers] to do so, but to provide and support that sense of purpose can really increase the resiliency in our youth.”

Another component to positive mental health in the youth that Mayfield mentioned was the benefit of risk-taking and the unstructured free reign to play outside.

“I often counsel parents to let your kids walk on rough grounds,” he said.

Getting out in nature is one of the evidence-based strategies for toxic stress regulations can help the youth reduce stress and build resilience.

“Time in nature, of course, we kind of take it for granted that we all do it up here. It’s actually not the case, Dana and I both go on these field trips where it’s the first time a kid has gone hiking at Donner Summit or have gone skiing,” he said.

With so many positive impacts from spending time outside, many think because we live in Tahoe everyone has access to it which isn’t exactly true according to Mayfield.

“Even though there’s trees out the window, we can assume that people are getting out there,” he said.

On the same lines of being in nature, building self efficacy comes from the benefits of risky play.

Mayfield stressed the importance of getting your kids bodies in motion, with a little bit of risk to help build self efficacy.

Mayfield has yet to have a kid who was really into skateboarding come through the system and he attributes it to risky play.

“You know that kind of intense physical activity really buffers a person from anxiety and depression and gives them that resilience,” he said.

Adams also says how important it is to find joy for the youth whether it is activities such as skateboarding, but she also stressed the importance of finding joy for parents as well .

She recommends everyone finding joy, even for 5 minutes a day to increase calmness, decrease a feeling of hopelessness and create a positive outlook on the future.

“I know it’s been a really hard 11 months, but I think also looking at those silver linings is super important,” she said. “We are slowing down, we have slowed things down a little bit, we’re increasing our connections, we’re finding different ways to connect with students, we’re increasing a sense of community, increasing our adaptability and our resiliency and are supporting our youth along the way.”

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