Although the data is still being gathered, lawmakers, experts, teachers, and parents give anecdotal evidence that the COVID-19 lockdowns created mental stress for young people, especially young men.
This series explores this topic through the eyes, ears and hearts of all those who have a hand in the development of young men in Barbados.
Some persons interviewed preferred anonymity. They are given a pseudonym to protect their identity represented in quotations.
Do you remember when you were a young person? What were your dreams? How did you view yourself?
Try to imagine yourself going through all the hormonal changes at a time when everyone is experiencing forced isolation caused by pandemic lockdowns and disruptions to work, school and friendships.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus came onto the world stage in December 2019, creating a paradigm shift and turning their worlds upside down.
Countries rushed to limit its spread by issuing lockdowns. In Barbados, these measures started on March 26, 2020.
During the lockdowns, international funding was necessary to stabilise the economy. There was high unemployment in the tourism industry and most importantly, there was fear of contracting a deadly disease. To date, COVID-19 took over 575 lives.
For anyone, this situation can test your mental fortitude. For young people, it strikes hard at their mental health at a vulnerable time.
The Barbados National Library Service captured these feelings in a collection of poems by primary and secondary students called “How COVID-19 Impacted Me”. In the foreword, Senior Librarian Loleta Parris describes the anthology as children “penning their thoughts, feelings and experiences during [the] health crisis.”
The poems describe young people’s emotions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Many reflect a sense of isolation and reveal how limited human contact created anxieties for them.
Now that lockdowns are over and children are back at school, researchers are beginning to accumulate data on the effects of COVID-19 on young people. However, anecdotally, young men have a unique way of handling tension.
Tragically, this point was reinforced to a single parent and her son, who found out first-hand the pressure of the pandemic, leaving the son with one friend beaten, and his best friend fatally stabbed. His mother relates a parent’s worst nightmare.
“Sometime during the night, I got the call that [the best friend] was killed. I immediately contacted my son and couldn’t hear him at first. When I got through to him, he was screaming and having a tantrum over the situation, as is pretty much expected.”
Sean Pilgrim, Psychologist for the Barbados Prison Service, foresees issues like this based on the US Surgeon General’s 2021 Special Report, ‘Protecting Youth Mental Health’.
“In the US Surgeon General Report, he announced a mental health crisis amongst teens and young adults in the US. They were reporting skyrocketing rates of depression anxiety, suicidal ideation mainly due to the pandemic and shutdowns.”
According to teachers, parents, students and experts, these challenges did not suddenly appear. They simmered pre-COVID and magnified during the pandemic.
Rites of Passage
So why should young men’s situations be singled out? Young women underwent the COVID-19 isolation process too. What makes young men so unique?
Secondary school teacher ‘Flores’ explains the real or imagined expectations of being a man.
“I found young men don’t like people to see that they are vulnerable and in need. They would rather act as if nothing is wrong. ‘Nah, I good, I’m cool’, they say because you can’t look weak.
“We, in society, have created that image of a man. You don’t say you need. You go out and figure out how you can get what you want. And the sad thing is children that age don’t know how to cope. They don’t know where to go; unfortunately, they go to the wrong places.”
Andrew Lokey, a 25-year veteran teacher at the only government boy’s school on the island, expands on this point. Over his years of teaching boys, he notices that boys are put in a “narrow” box of what a “man” can do.
“So we have a situation where sometimes our boys are in crisis because they’re like, ‘I can’t do this. I have to do this to be a man’. That, for me, is a very, very serious thing, and it borders on being abusive.”
After the initial lockdown in Barbados, there was a state of uncertainty, and no one knew how long it would last. The Ministry of Education, Technological and Vocational training soon transitioned, in May 2020, to online sessions using Google Classrooms.
One student, ‘Kimani’ who attends a private school, found online learning “peaceful” and “less distracting”, but, ultimately, “it did get boring at times. It was harder to learn because the teachers couldn’t be that engaging.”
Reverend Derick A. Richards, Bishop of the South Caribbean District of the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas and rector at the James St Methodist Church, also noted the struggles among the younger parishioners.
“Certainly [COVID-19] had a major impact on young people generally. But I think boys were especially affected because, naturally, boys are more outdoors-oriented. I think [that] was probably part of the cause of the mental health challenges because they were doing school online, and we were engaging them online for church-related activities. The fatigue of that was quite evident.”
Also challenging was communicating online with students who already had learning issues in face-to-face classes.
“These children would already struggle in the classroom setting. I can say anecdotally that the young boys and teenagers [struggle], observes Psychologist Sean Pilgrim.
“If you think about what’s required for online learning is a certain level of discipline, a certain level of emotional maturity, to sit there and say, ‘I’m going to look at this screen; I’m going to participate in this in this very abstract process’.
‘Hilary’ a secondary school teacher noticed that, in some cases, online schooling helped with note-taking and the ability to incorporate PowerPoint presentations into the lesson. Still, the teacher also realised some challenges.
“Focus and not having that interaction, I think, stifled a lot of the males. They weren’t confident in their voice. Females are cool and comfortable with opening up a mic and talking. But I found getting some males to speak to you difficult, and it was difficult getting them to respond and interact with you the way you’d want.”
This sentiment is echoed by ‘Flores’, who mainly teaches children with learning challenges. She found that online classes did not work for most of her students. Beyond getting devices, some families did not have the space or in some cases, the electricity for their children to go online. ‘Flores’ saw online learning losing the interest of students more focused on what was going on in their own neighbourhoods. She recalls as the pandemic went on, attendance dropped. “I went from having classes where I would have ten children in attendance to one or sometimes nobody would log on.”
Return to Face-to-Face Classes and Dropout Rates
The online experience for young men proved to be more than they could handle. They knew “catching up” was futile. ‘Hilary’ explains that some of her male students found school, under normal circumstances, uninteresting and a constant test of their manhood. In some cases, returning was not an option.
“A lot of them just don’t feel that school is a place for them anymore. [They feel] like what is school really offering me? I spent two years online, and I was already remedial. I am reading at the age of maybe eight. I’m going to come now to sit back in the classroom?” She further makes the point that “the education now is not for boys, I’m sorry to say, it is not grasping the boy’s attention, they don’t see how it can take them. So the dropout rate is high.”
Other teachers and experts saw some young men drop out to go to work. The pandemic caused massive unemployment especially in tourism. Some parents were laid off during the lockdown and looked to their young men to “man up”.
“I questioned them, and, I’m saying, well, in our society, at your age, it is illegal to have a job, but a lot of them found employment. Construction is booming in some areas; go and do a little day’s work, pick some coconuts and hustle.”, relates ‘Flores’ to what some male students chose to do to help their families.
Although school leaving rates are still being collated, Prison Service Psychologist Sean Pilgrim backs this concern and fears for the future if the issue is not addressed.
“They’ve missed a year of school. The school went on without them, and the teacher went ahead without them. Their friends matured. I am thinking when we take a much closer look at this in the future, it’s going to be quite a disaster for that at-risk group of children.”
On the Block – Drugs and Crime
Now dropped out of the classroom, many interviewed saw some young men finding solace on the “block”.
“It is a place to hold conversations into the night with friends, accompanied sometimes by alcohol and marijuana. The ‘block’ is where ‘manhood’ is glorified.
“You can add your two cents, and you can roast six breadfruits so you all can sit down and eat and go back home with your stomach full. It’s no judgment.
“There’s judgment in the school setting. They’re going to ask you questions, and there’s going to be a test, and there’s going to be some feeling of failure.” ‘Flores’ says with great emotion.
The link between crime and drugs is strong. Early in 2023, the Barbados Drug Information Network Report (BARDIN) 2020 was released by the National Council on Substance Abuse. Overwhelmingly, numbers indicate a high number of males under 45 years seeking counselling through the criminal justice system.
(Findings from the Barbados Drug Network Report (BARDIN) 2020 published in 2023)
The researcher who worked on the report for the National Council of Substance Abuse (NCSA), Dr. Jonathan Yearwood told CIJN the report gathers data from government treatment facilities and law enforcement. He said non-governmental treatment programs also contributed data.
Dr. Yearwood said the key findings of the Barbados Drug Information Network Report (Bardin) report were that males under the age of 40 were the most likely to get arrested for drug offenses and seek treatment.
Dr. Jonathan Yearwood, suggests proving masculinity is a part of these high figures.
“It may be a reflection of what males are most likely to do as a reflection of the culture in the society in which we live. If it’s the norm for males to engage openly in substance abuse and challenge authority more than females, then you will find that [in] the incarceration rates.”
The crime and drug bond is indeed solid. The early use of substances can develop Substance Abuse Disorder, making patients more susceptible to suggestion and less able to perform academically.
“From a pretty young age, they tend to develop psychiatric issues, the cognitive skills are lowered, if your mental faculties are lowered, then it may have implications for you finding work, dropping out of school; you may run the risk of other types of problems, ” explains Dr. Yearwood who also indicated that even before COVID-19 the NCSA saw the introduction of some non-traditional substances such as ecstasy and methamphetamine.
The NCSA, along with the police, monitor these substances, especially the highly addictive “Meth”. The symptoms, disclosed Dr. Yearwood, are “associated with violence, drug dealing, with criminal behaviour as a whole.”
In January 2023, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley, announced a Secondary School Diagnostic assessment for students from 3rd – 5th form (13 – 15 years). This tool will dig deeper into the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on the young people of Barbados.
“Now that the schools are started, we have to determine the status of every child. We have to come up with an individual plan that allows us to better close the bridging deficit with every child. Because if we don’t do it now, we will pay the price at some other point in our society and our future.”
Prime Minister Mottley furthered this pledge in a recent Budgetary Proposals and Financial Statement proposing USD $5.5M (BDS $11M) in expenditures directly aimed at young people. Part of the funds would target 10 high-risk communities and provide life coaching and conflict resolution for young people and even training for parents.
Prime Minister Mottley asserted in her budget address that Barbados needed to “put its money where its mouth is” if it wanted to turn around the recent upsurge in gun violence. She told lawmakers a program that would provide training in art, theatre and dance as well as public speaking would help infuse young people with pride and confidence.
Parents and teachers welcome any study that can assist young people. They want to ensure it does not remain another “academic” report. They hope it will provide tools to help put the lives of their children and students back together.
“It’s all well and good to gather information and examine it and produce some measure of analysis, but then you have to look at solutions,” mentions ‘Hilary’ emphatically.
However, will it be in time for the single mother and her son dealing with the loss of his best friend?
“I noticed that especially at night [he] becomes more paranoid, having this fear that somebody’s coming for him. I also noticed that he started to have panic attacks, where he was not breathing properly. I stayed up with him until he fell asleep. I made an appointment for him to speak to a professional but when the day came, he didn’t want to go. I continue to monitor him.” She says poignantly.
COVID-19 shone the spotlight on the “elephant” in the room: how society often fails to deal with mental health and the pressure brought to bear on young people.
Barbados is now at a crossroads. It can either be a teachable moment or we let it slip through our fingers like done in the past.
The need for trained school counsellors is essential according to the teachers, parents and students. They saw the need strongest among at-risk young men as they navigate through this post-lockdown period.
All interviewed see the importance of communication and removing stereotypical labels of manhood.
Reverend Richards is ramping up the music programme for young people. He plans to add more staff. He is also putting more energy into the Alpha Prison programme to help young men transition back to normal life after being incarcerated. Further, the Reverend is hoping to bring the Boys to Men programme to Barbados.
“What it really does is to follow boys and help them through transition moments from boyhood to manhood. The program engages boys and teaches them how to be men and leaders.”
The bottom line, however, is getting students engaged. Getting them to enjoy the experience of learning. Mr Lokey, whom we met earlier, is also the leader of the highly sought-after St. Leonard’s Boys’ Secondary School Choir. He sees how the choir encourages boys to find harmony both musically and among each other and within themselves.
“In 2018, we had the opportunity to sing in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris,” he told us.
“[The boys know] people outside are investing time and money, and therefore, [they] have that support system. At least I have people around me saying you know what, we have your back; we are going to support you in what you’re doing.”
That support matters.
The real test is the outcome for the single mom and her son. Will society provide enough for him to make his way through? What support will he have? The funeral of his best friend provided a little closure, but his mother knows he still faces a long journey.
“We need to delve into these children’s brains and see what is really going on because COVID has had an impact on our children, if you’re not sure, look and see if it has had an impact on you. If it did, you could guarantee the little ones were impacted too.”
- Spotlight On: Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Children, Youth and Families: A Brief Produced by the Evidence-Based Policy Institute – Written by: Jacqueline Shen Editors: Matthew Pecoraro, MSW and Christopher Bellonci, MD – September 2020 – Judge Baker Children’s Center
- Preventing a Lost Decade: Urgent Action to Reverse the Devastating Impact of COVID-19 on Children and Young People – December 2021 – UNICEF
Graphics designed by Esther Jones
This is an investigation completed by Esther Jones for Caribbean Investigative Journalism Network with the support of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) as part of the Investigative Journalism Initiative in the Americas.