The hardest part of 2020 election for young voters? The waiting

A person looking at a computer.
Saleen Thepmontry, 17, of Adrian, Minn. and a senior at Worthington High School takes part in a Zoom call with Unidos We Win on Tuesday. Thepmontry is unable to vote because of her age, but she has been working alongside other youth who are looking to engage community members to get out and vote through phone calls and texts reminding voters to vote.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Updated: 7:38 p.m.

Once the phone banking was done Tuesday night at the Unidos We Win headquarters in Worthington, Minn., Saleen Thepmontry knew the anxiety and the stress would be far from over once the polls closed on Election Day.

The Worthington High School senior knew what would happen next. What’s happening now, as results in the presidential election and other races continue to trickle in, would be just as hard: The waiting. 

Thepmontry, 17, who lives in Adrian, said she’s in a frustrating position. Too young to vote, but with strong political leanings, she volunteered this election season with Unidos We Win, an immigration-focused political action committee — she has to depend on others who are eligible to vote. 

Thepmontry, who is of Mexican and Laotian descent, said she feels especially vulnerable this election, as a young person of color. She and others have a lot at stake in this election, she said. 

“There was this thing on social media that someone posted and it was like, if you aren’t 18 or aren’t able to vote, your opinion doesn’t matter, so you should just not say anything,” Thepmontry said. “I was like, ’But this is my future. And if I were able, if I could make a difference, I would.’ It made me mad, because people say that just because I’m 17, my opinion doesn’t matter on anything.”

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This feeling is particularly acute, she said, for young people who are so close to being able to vote — but aren’t quite old enough. 

Some young people say they are still rattled by the effects of the deeply divided political season — one that continues in demonstrations and social media protest as the votes are counted. Beatriz Chonay, 18, of Worthington, recalled not wanting to engage in political conversations before this election season. But she soon realized how important it was for many of her peers to get involved — especially for those who aren’t old enough to vote.

She registered as a voter through Unidos We Win, which helped her get involved in assisting others who were interested in becoming new voters too. Chonay’s parents are immigrants, so because of their current citizenship status, they don't have voting rights.

Chonay said she wanted to have a say in who runs her country, and wanted to support candidates who would take into account the best interests for every person, regardless if they’re eligible to vote or not. She assisted with phone banking and text banking at Unidos We Win, reminding registered voters to cast their ballots, and voted herself.

That’s why, she said, waiting for the results has been a daunting situation for many. She worries it could mean the end of programs such as DACA, or limiting immigration and citizenship processes. She’s concerned it could mean an overturning of abortion rights or same-sex marriage. 

While voters might think about themselves and their families solely at the polls because they’re focused on one issue or supporting political parties, Chonay said, that focus could cause collateral damage to those who can’t vote and have to live with those choices. 

A person sits on the floor and looks at a laptop in a chair.
Beatriz Chonay, 18, of Worthington, Minn. phone banks and checks in on community members, reminding them to go vote on Tuesday as part of volunteer work with Unidos We Win.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

“Your vote can impact families and might not seem like a big deal for some people, but it is for a lot of people,” Chonay said. “Rights can be taken away or things can be established and it can make things worse for them.”

Help with the uncertainty

Counselors in the Worthington public school district have been checking in on students more frequently since the COVID-19 pandemic began this spring. Given all the uncertainty, upheaval and trauma of 2020, they said it has been more important than ever this year to let students, staff and family know that they aren’t navigating these uncertain times alone.

The district has been doing several things to address students’ mental health. The high school recently had students take a needs assessment to gauge their access to things like food and basic supplies, while also addressing their emotional wellbeing, too. 

The middle school has also been setting up Zoom rooms for students, where they can see their classmates outside of a formal class setting, and just talk about how they’re doing and get some social interaction through digital means.

That’s why the district’s counseling services put out a statement as Election Day results continued to be updated the next day, reminding families, staff and students of the resources available to them, as they navigate uncertainty —  whether that is waiting for election results or meeting physical needs like making sure students are fed. 

“To make a statement like this also addresses that mental health is more normalized, it really does affect every person,” said Jesse Nitzschke, a Worthington High School counselor. “We know that our students do deal with it day to day before even all this has happened this year, so we just want to make sure that they know they’re not alone. We want to be there for everybody so we can come through this together.”

All of the district’s grades are in distance learning because of COVID-19, so the feeling of isolation, Nitzschke said, may be overwhelming. 

People stand in a room.
Volunteers of Unidos We Win set up base in Worthington, Minn. on Tuesday. Many of the volunteers are youth who are looking to be civically engaged. Through phone banking and communicating with community members, they are able to gauge the needs of individual voters and help them to vote.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Counselors said it’s also important to approach mental health support differently for each age and group level. Carrie Adams, a Worthington Middle School counselor, said that, developmentally, younger students haven’t built up coping skills that adults have learned over the years. 

“We need to take a kind of proactive approach to normalizing everything that we’re going through,” Adams said. “The feelings that we’re having they’re completely normal and then help educate our students on what are positive coping skills. How do we handle this stress or anxiety or sense of loss that they might be experiencing.”

Here are some recommendations that counselors are giving to staff, students and families who are in the midst of coping with anxiety during uncertainty:

1) Talk to someone

Worthington schools counselors said the most important tip they could give to families, students and staff about coping with the turmoil is to reach out for help and to talk to someone — especially when dealing with overwhelming feelings that seem to be beyond a person’s control.  

Lakeyta Swinea, a Worthington High School counselor, said it’s important for people to empathize with the fact that the people around them are all just trying to figure things out, day to day — and remember that they could be struggling. 

“It’s OK to reach out and just have conversations with someone. And we’re here, we can be that person,” Swinea said. “Even if we can’t solve everything for you, we’re going to do our best to link you up with someone else that might be able to help you. that initial point person, but then be able to pass that person onto someone who can continue to help them with whatever that I couldn’t do. Reaching out is so important.”

2) Set boundaries and practice self-care

It’s easy to get caught up in the rush of day-to-day responsibilities, but it’s also important to focus on yourself. 

Counselors recommended taking time to enjoy hobbies and stepping outside for some fresh air. 

Even if you’re only able to take 10 minutes to decompress by going out for a walk in the neighborhood, they said, do it.  

Taking the time to simply focus on yourself could make a difference in being able to be present for other people. For teachers, that might also mean setting up office hours and then logging off for the rest of the evening to avoid burnout. 

“It’s OK to shut down and then enjoy time with your family, do your regular activities you would be doing in the evening,” Adams said. “You don’t have to be checking your email or your messages from students all the time, you need to separate from that. And it’s OK to let the students know from this time to this time, ‘this is when I’m available.’”

Taking care of yourself is necessary if you want to be able to help other people, Nitzschke added. 

“You need to take care of yourself, or how are you going to take care of your students if you're not functioning at the same level?” she said.

3) Establish structure and routine

For children, especially, the world’s chaos and turmoil can be especially frightening. Counselors recommend creating schedules and structures to help students feel more secure and safe when it comes to approaching the unknowns and uncertainty. 

Nitzschke acknowledges that not all parents can take time out of work during the pandemic, but even simply being present in a student’s day  can help them feel that they have more control over what might seem to be uncontrollable situations. 

“They can be there with their student, whether it’s to help them with their homework or just to be there as a parent,” Nitzschke said. “If a parent can get some structure in their life, that’s super important. That’s been one tough thing with distance learning that we’ve been dealing with, but that’s one huge thing I think that kids really can help them: structure.”

4) Unplug from social media

Staying attached to your phone screen or laptop, doomscrolling through massive amounts of information, can eventually lead to burnout. That’s why it’s important to strike a healthy balance away from technology whenever possible. 

“There’s just so much information that they ingest all the time,” Swinea said. “I definitely would encourage students to be more present in your day-to-day activities instead of always on your phone or device. Especially now with school a lot of students they’re literally on a device all can burn out from that. You have to have some type of balance.”

So: Get outside and designate time to just unplug from the internet. Adams advises taking a deep breath to recharge. The work, she says, won’t be going anywhere. 

“The next day you can go back to your homework or your work duties if you’re a staff person,” she said. “But we all need that time to kind of disconnect from the technology piece and feeling overwhelmed by all of the expectations right now.”

5) Turn to coworkers, family or friends with similar experiences

Sometimes, a venting session is all that someone needs. 

Having a support system with people who can be empathetic to your situation and understand your mindset can make a huge difference.

Even counselors, who are mental health professionals, need someone to talk with from time to time.

“Sometimes we just need to vent,” Adams said. “There are things that only those of us working in this world can really understand and we share and we talk about those things with each other and I think that’s huge. You have to have somebody that you can go to. Even those of us that are supposed to be supports, we need support as well and sometimes that’s hard for us to do.”