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IN RESPONSE: To address absenteeism, give students a sense of belonging

I read with great interest your Jan. 22 editorial, “Public schools are struggling with absent students.” As co-chair of Hope Means Nevada, a statewide youth mental health nonprofit committed to educating teens about mental wellness and ending youth suicide in the state, I appreciate the attention given to this crucial issue.

My organization has been driven by the active participation of students, recognizing their receptivity to messages delivered by peers. At a recent statewide roundtable discussion we hosted, students in Las Vegas and Reno shared that they lack a sense of belonging. They expected this feeling to subside post-COVID, when the stay-at-home mandate was removed and they returned to the classroom. But, surprisingly, it has not been an easy transition. These feelings of estrangement and isolation from their peers and the community as a whole persist, leading to loneliness as well as anxiety.

During the roundtable, student leaders emphasized that fostering a sense of re-connection requires purpose-filled initiatives. The consensus among the 60 youth mental health leaders present was clear: The antidote to anxiety is action, and the solution to students’ lack of belonging is providing opportunities to establish and nurture meaningful connections.

With this solution in mind, the Hope Means Nevada teen committee gathered together with their peers for our #HopeInAction volunteer event. Doing something kind for someone else represents a powerful way to improve one’s own mental health, so the teens spent the day assembling care packages and hygiene kits for four local nonprofits serving unhoused individuals, disadvantaged youth and veterans.

The event took place thanks to Hope Means Nevada’s generous community partner, Subaru of Las Vegas, and served as a dynamic occasion for building collaboration and support among participating youth. The day included not only meaningful volunteer opportunities conducive to peer bonding, but also informative tables from various local mental health organizations, providing attendees with valuable resources.

The success of #HopeInAction underscores the impact of purpose-filled initiatives in addressing the pressing issue of student belonging. As we strive to empower our youth to live hopeful lives, collaborative efforts among organizations, schools and communities become most important. Through initiatives such as #HopeInAction, we not only acknowledge the struggles faced by students but also actively contribute to creating an environment where they feel a sense of purpose and belonging.

Julie Murray is co-chair of Hope Means Nevada.

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