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Kentucky youth mental health officials stress the importance of inclusion in schools


Youth mental health has become an important issue in a post-COVID world, with more concern surrounding the mental state of children.

Officials said an important part of children’s mental health is fostering a sense of belonging.

Damien Sweeny, Director of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging team with the Kentucky Department of Education, said helping students feel comfortable and confident of their place in school is an essential part of the journey to improve mental health.

“When we talk about inclusion, it’s being really intentional about creating an environment that fosters mutually respectful relationships where each student, regardless of their background, is welcome, supported, and valued as fully participating members of society. The ultimate goal of my work is to enhance a sense of belonging,” said Sweeny.

Sweeny added that working with students to ensure they feel safe and comfortable in schools is an important way to help students with mental health challenges and that making sure students not only appreciate themselves, but also others, is important.

“Making sure that we are understanding of each other’s differences, acknowledging each other’s differences, respectful of those differences, is something that’s going to be really important to making students feel included, making us all feel included and like we belong, and right now that seems to be a struggle in our state,” said Sweeny.

Sweeny said in a recent survey, 22% of Kentucky high school students disagree with the statement ‘I feel like I am a part of my school,’ and added that this number is unacceptable.

He said students deserve to feel included and appreciated, and said he is willing to work with students and teachers across the state to hear what they need and how to best help them achieve that.