As published in the Maine Voices column in the Portland Press Herald, October 30, 2023.

Let’s Build Hope for Youth through Policy Action

While we are still reeling from the impact of the mass shooting in Lewiston on October 25th, let’s politicize this moment. You heard me right. Not politicizing this tragedy would be an abdication of our responsibility to our children, our youth, and all our future generations here. But not for the reasons you might think.

I spend my Fridays with the Student Leadership Committee at Freeport High who, in addition to their full slate of classes, sports, family chores, and after school jobs, take action every week to make their school a better place. As participants in The Source School’s Listen to ME program, and the ongoing research we do together, they listen deeply to their peers, identify their hopes for the school, design policy solutions to realize those future goals, and then collaborate directly with teachers and administrators to implement solutions that support the whole school community’s thriving. In short, they model for us what we could do, should do. Policy, legal or otherwise, is how citizens create the society they want to live in.

To be true, Freeport High School has smaller numbers and less complex issues than the State of Maine. But the approach they use, and why I work to support them, is applicable at any scale. While Maine has generally been thought of as a safe place, we all know the youth mental health crisis is real: in Maine 20% of middle school students and 18.5% of high school students seriously considered suicide in 2021. Social media has been blamed in large part, and I believe, from my discussions with high school students across the state, that the blame is not incorrectly placed. However, the answer is not that simple.

Suicide is the result of hopelessness. And hopelessness is the result of a belief that the future is fixed. When we can’t conceive of a change for the better, when tomorrow’s pain is assured, what is there to hope for? Young people consider taking their own lives because they simply can’t imagine a way that the future could be better than today. Therefore having and using pathways for taking action to change a situation is the antidote to despair. Action is how we build hope. The Freeport High students report they are indeed more hopeful for having collaborated with peers and adults in creating a positive future through policy for their community. That’s why I keep going back, and why we have scaled this program to include additional schools in 2023.

Action also happens to be the way to build trust with young people. These Freeport High students have taught me that they trust adults when they literally see those adults prove their good will by taking action with them to create a better future. Thoughts and prayers are much needed, and also truly not enough, and students know it. Youth also need to see the possibility for change beyond their schoolyard. They need to trust that adults can and will work together to make the future Maine a safer place than today. Without hope or trust, our Maine youth have little to buoy them.

Policy solutions must be sought as a response to the horrible, and truly terrifying, incidents in Lewiston. These policies must be the result of research into the impact of this tragedy on all members of the community, the kind of communities we as Mainers want to live in, creative solutions to meet a variety of needs and desires, and most importantly, our shared values. If we do not politicize this moment, if we do not take action to create a Maine where we can all feel safe, we are failing our children and youth. We will fail them not only because we will fail to protect them. We will fail them because we’ll have proven the future is fixed.