CYO Mercer responds to mental health risks: hunger, learning loss

December 11, 2023 at 4:00 p.m.
Tom Mladenetz, courtesy photo
Tom Mladenetz, courtesy photo

By EMMALEE ITALIA
Contributing Editor

If children ask to save an after-school snack for later because they aren’t sure there will be a dinner, it’s no surprise that could have a downstream affect on their mental health.

Tom Mladenetz, executive director of Mercer County Catholic Youth Organization, has observed as much at the agency’s centers in Trenton, which provide preschool and before and after school programs for children of parents who are working or finishing education.

“We’ve been serving low- and very-low-income families throughout our 71 years, and [food insecurity] has always been an issue,” he said. “There are associated mental health concerns that go along with that… Post-COVID, I think it has gotten worse.”

Since the pandemic began, Mladenetz noted an increase in the number of those who make use of the organization’s food pantry and children who are still hungry at night, accompanied by academic struggles brought on by the learning loss experienced by so many students. The two factors combine in a perfect storm of mental health challenges.

“Remote learning just didn’t work for a lot of kids,” he pointed out. “They’re behind and now playing catch up. That takes its toll; parents get frustrated [with their child’s performance] and are asking for extra tutoring – they’re working two jobs and need CYO for homework help… that ties directly into the stress for both parents and kids.” 

An additional factor, Mladenetz said, has been the negative effects of social media – specifically cyberbullying. “Kids are saying, ‘so and so is bashing me on social media, saying things that aren’t true,’” he recounted. “It’s a serious issue in school and sports leagues; unfortunately, it starts with [observing] the professionals bashing each other.”

Although CYO doesn’t have counseling programs to address these stressors, they do train their after-school staff to watch for specific cues and respond accordingly.

“Some children dealing with stress are more comfortable opening up at an after-school program – our staff have a relationship with them,” he explained. “If they see a child not being themselves, they talk to them and listen – that’s the most important thing. That gets things in motion, so we can then talk to the parent and their school guidance counselor. We plan an important role, activating things that need to be put into play.”


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If children ask to save an after-school snack for later because they aren’t sure there will be a dinner, it’s no surprise that could have a downstream affect on their mental health.

Tom Mladenetz, executive director of Mercer County Catholic Youth Organization, has observed as much at the agency’s centers in Trenton, which provide preschool and before and after school programs for children of parents who are working or finishing education.

“We’ve been serving low- and very-low-income families throughout our 71 years, and [food insecurity] has always been an issue,” he said. “There are associated mental health concerns that go along with that… Post-COVID, I think it has gotten worse.”

Since the pandemic began, Mladenetz noted an increase in the number of those who make use of the organization’s food pantry and children who are still hungry at night, accompanied by academic struggles brought on by the learning loss experienced by so many students. The two factors combine in a perfect storm of mental health challenges.

“Remote learning just didn’t work for a lot of kids,” he pointed out. “They’re behind and now playing catch up. That takes its toll; parents get frustrated [with their child’s performance] and are asking for extra tutoring – they’re working two jobs and need CYO for homework help… that ties directly into the stress for both parents and kids.” 

An additional factor, Mladenetz said, has been the negative effects of social media – specifically cyberbullying. “Kids are saying, ‘so and so is bashing me on social media, saying things that aren’t true,’” he recounted. “It’s a serious issue in school and sports leagues; unfortunately, it starts with [observing] the professionals bashing each other.”

Although CYO doesn’t have counseling programs to address these stressors, they do train their after-school staff to watch for specific cues and respond accordingly.

“Some children dealing with stress are more comfortable opening up at an after-school program – our staff have a relationship with them,” he explained. “If they see a child not being themselves, they talk to them and listen – that’s the most important thing. That gets things in motion, so we can then talk to the parent and their school guidance counselor. We plan an important role, activating things that need to be put into play.”

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