The COVID-19 shutdown has had a significant negative impact on vulnerable young people in the Cayman Islands. The consequences — manifesting as mental health issues, substance abuse, learning gaps, etc. — started becoming apparent immediately and are likely to reverberate for years to come.
The adverse effects of the pandemic and resulting economic pressures have highlighted the need for adults to step up and act as mentors and role models for Cayman’s children, panellists said during a Youth Mentoring Forum hosted by local nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters Cayman Islands.
“The mental strain of the uncertainty of the future is very real, especially for our young people. So much has changed in such a short space of time,” said Joannah Bodden Small, the Recovery Committee Chair for the R3 Foundation, one of the sponsors of Saturday’s forum.
Panellist Tara Nielson of nonprofit Acts of Random Kindness said, “We’ve seen firsthand what happens when you don’t have mentors, what happens when you don’t have positive people in your life, what happens when you haven’t got a village around you. The truth is it’s almost impossible to come back from that. We’ve lost many generations to that.”
While most of Cayman’s population has been lifted up during a half-century of explosive economic growth, disruptions to the islands’ social fabric have also contributed to certain segments of the community being ‘left behind’ in generational poverty.
Panellist Paul Byles of Academy Sports Club said, “Countries tend to have worsening social conditions as they develop. In particular if they develop very quickly, most countries don’t have the institutions in place to keep up with the need to take care of the social issues.”
Panellist Jon Clark, the principal of John Gray High School, said that before he arrived in Cayman about 5 years ago, his teaching career was in cities where high levels of illiteracy and low levels of income had negative impacts on education.
“I wasn’t sure that was going to be the case when I took the job in Cayman, but obviously you do see that quite dramatically at John Gray, and you see it in schools across the whole of Cayman,” he said.
The stark contrast between Cayman’s ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ not only is a cause of discontent and unrest, but the divide is increasingly illuminated by technology such as social media.
Panellist Shannon Seymour of The Wellness Centre said her husband grew up in a low-income household in central George Town. She said in the past, children like her husband were aware that wealthier children could afford to do things like go on vacation or have expensive things, but the reality of that sort of lifestyle was something that was left up to the imagination.
“Whereas, nowadays the kids can see into the lives of all of those other people through Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. So it’s no longer they ‘could imagine’ what their life might be like, it’s now that you see it every day, in your face. During the pandemic, you sat at home on your phone 24 hours a day looking at how they had what you didn’t have,” Seymour said.
Panellist Jason Jones, appearing on behalf of the Alex Panton Foundation, said he believes in the maxim that “it takes a village to raise a child” — although that ‘village’ has changed over time.
“In the good old days, it was the family members, it was the neighbours, it was the community, but it looks very different today. Today families are more spread out. There’s less community and neighbourhood cohesiveness, and I’m a really big believer that it takes the professionals in the community — the coaches, the principals, the teachers, the cadet leaders, the big brothers, the bigs — those kinds of individuals that continue to wrap around a child and provide the protective factors that keep them from going down the road to places that we don’t want them to go,” Jones said.
He noted that, even though Cayman has been in a ‘bubble’ largely insulated from the pandemic locally, many children here have siblings, grandparents or other family members outside the country, and so have had to deal with illnesses or deaths of loved ones from far away.
“No one should have to go through a Zoom funeral,” Jones said.
During last year’s COVID-19 lockdown and ensuing restrictions on gathering, many children lost contact with that external support structure. With parents also dealing with mental and financial stresses, a number of those children turned to ‘coping mechanisms’ or unhealthy diversions such as tobacco, alcohol, pornography or excessive computer gaming, panellists said.
Nielsen said, “As anyone here who’s a parent will understand, when things are difficult, it’s difficult to be a good parent.”
Byles said that while Academy’s young athletes were eager to get back into the sports programmes, the coaches have seen some very serious situations that developed during those months without support, ones that the children won’t be able to bounce back from in the short term.
Seymour made an appeal for Caymanians, especially Caymanian men, to step forward and become mentors for young Caymanian children, saying that it is extremely powerful when children can see adults, who look and sound like them, being models of positive behaviour and change.
The most important thing about being a mentor isn’t your academic background or professional resume, but a real commitment to helping the child. The worst thing for a volunteer or mentor to do is to make promises to a family or young person, then not follow through on them, Nielsen said.
Clark said, “I think it’s the mindset. You’ve got to really want to make a difference. This isn’t about ticking on a form if you want permanent residence, or if you want to do something for your church. It has to be that you really, really want to make a difference, so that the consistency is there.”
The Big Brothers Big Sisters Youth Mentoring Forum was sponsored by R3, the Maples Group and Tower Marketing, and was held at Cayman International School.