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The significance of small affirmations: Juno’s story

In December 2022, a few students from ThriveSMH shared at School Mental Health Ontario’s Provincial Leadership Meeting (PLM). The PLM is a bi-annual meeting with school board mental health leadership teams. We asked them to share with the audience what identity-affirming mental health means to them. In answering this question, Juno shared about the small actions they experience that go a long way in affirming students. Here is their story.

Listen to an audio clip of Juno sharing the story, or read the text below.

Whenever I hear the term “identity-affirming mental health,” I am reminded of a journal I read called Handbook of Child and Adolescent Sexuality written by Lisa M. Diamond. Chapter 11 of the book is an in-depth exploration of the early mental health effects minority youth face. Diamond explores the intersection of identity acceptance and affirmation with positive mental health outcomes.

One section of the chapter titled “Exposure to Stigmatization” contains a quote that reads,

As long as transgender individuals are forced to navigate their school and family worlds with an ever-present, debilitating fear of stigmatization, ostracization, humiliation, and physical violence, they cannot be expected to achieve a healthy sense of self-determination.

That is what identity-affirming mental health means to me.

The Minority Stress Model

Something to keep in mind in order to fully understand this statement is the Minority Stress Model. The Minority Stress Model was originally theorized in order to better understand the poor mental health within queer communities. The model was fully developed and published by I. H. Meyer and D. M. Frost in 2015.

The concept of the model is that minority groups face multiple different kinds of stressors:

  1. The first being distal/external stressors. These are environmental. Exposure to discrimination and hate-motivated violence are examples of external stressors.
  2. The next stressor is interactive, proximal stressors. This is the anticipation or expectation of external stressors, and vigilance that a person must maintain to protect oneself from such things.
  3. And the final stressor is internalized proximal stressors. This is a person’s internalization of negative attitudes and prejudice from society.

Though originally imagined in relation to queer communities, the model is applicable to all marginalized groups.

But what’s my point here?

What I’m trying to say is that this amount of stress, especially in adolescents, is not good for an individual’s mental health. But, all hope is not lost. There are some ways that we can help alleviate this stress.

Reflecting back on the Minority Stress Model, it’s clear that identity-acceptance and affirmation are much needed within marginalized communities. One of the clear causes of stress in this research is the lack of safe and comfortable spaces.

I believe that identity affirmation is a key component in making school a safe and comfortable space for minority students.

But how would you do that?

It’s really quite simple. Things like accepting and understanding a student’s identity, presenting youth with role models that look like them or that they can identify with. Building a sense of trust with each and every student. Facilitating a classroom that welcomes all students with the same amount of enthusiasm no matter who they are or where they come from. Though these things may seem insignificant, students appreciate it more than you can imagine.

Using my own life as an example, I have had many non-affirming experiences in the classroom. But the thing I will remember most was when my Grade 8 teacher assigned the class a book featuring a person with Tourette syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I still remember the pure euphoria I felt. The idea of somebody like me being a main character in a mystery novel and not a medical journal was exciting.

My teacher had chosen that book just for me. The thought of her making the conscious choice to make me feel seen and represented felt validating.

Now, imagine if teachers all across the province found ways to do that for their students. Imagine how much safer school could feel.

At the end of the day, these stories should be used to better understand just how significant these small affirmations are to marginalized students. That is what identity affirmation means to me.