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‘We all know what we need’: Detroit youth work to boost mental well-being

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Students and adults from Developing Despite Distance, a Detroit group that works to address the needs of young males who have incarcerated parents, working on project planning during training at the Northwest Activities Center in Detroit.

Lori Higgins / Chalkbeat

How schools seek to overcome pandemic-related mental health challenges and the broad impact of long-standing inequities.

Across Detroit, young people responded to an ambitious pitch this spring: Come up with a strong idea for a program that would address the emotional and mental well-being of their peers, and possibly earn thousands of dollars to pull it off.

The result was scores of ideas that were as diverse as the young people themselves: A wellness room with Zen and calming activities. A spa day for male youth with incarcerated parents. A kitchen renovation so youth can come together for dinner and fellowship. A safe haven for LGBTQ students.

Those are just a few of the 40 ideas, proposed by people ages 9 to 23, that have received a piece of a $544,000 pot of money provided by the Skillman Foundation (a Chalkbeat funder), part of a new grant program aimed at addressing mental health and wellness. The awardees received between $5,000 and $20,000 to develop their plans.

The one thread through all of these concepts is that even though there are adult allies helping, the students were in charge. They came up with the ideas, they decide how the money is spent, and they decide how to turn their ideas into reality.

“We all know what we want. We all know what we need,” said Charles Patterson, 16, a junior at Davis Aerospace Technical High School.

What they need, Charles said, is connection with one another. 

Charles is part of a youth group at the Eastside Community Network whose grant will go in part toward renovating a kitchen at the center and turning it into a place where young people can go to cook, eat meals, and spend time together. 

Young people like Charles “are ready and capable leaders,” who are “enriched with lots of ideas,” said Lindsey Barrett, an associate program officer at Skillman who led the effort.

Charles said the pandemic left him feeling isolated, and turned him into an introvert because he spent so much time learning remotely. Things are better for students now that they’re learning in person, he said, but not all young people have re-engaged.

“You have to consider that maybe certain students went through something over the pandemic, maybe they had a family member pass away,” Charles said. “For me, three of my family members passed away during the pandemic and it was hard for my family, and for me personally.”

Report after report has highlighted the heightened mental health and emotional needs of students due to the pandemic. Long stretches of remote learning left students feeling isolated and disconnected from school and their classmates. Educators are trying to address that by investing COVID relief money into mental health, but staffing challenges have hampered efforts.

In Detroit, young people have been telling officials at Skillman that they need safe spaces to connect with their peers and the community. They also said they wanted to use physical activity, the arts, and creative expression to create these safe spaces, Barrett said.

“We know that these bright young people are really prioritizing their wellness, and they’re doing it by leading their own solutions,” Barrett said

On a recent Saturday, dozens of the grantees gathered in a room at the Northwest Activities Center in Detroit to receive training on project planning that was facilitated by the Neutral Zone, an Ann Arbor youth-led organization. They spread out on the floor, working in groups as they plotted their goals and the steps they need to take to accomplish those goals. 

The young men from Developing Despite Distance, a program for males ages 10-24 who have a parent who is incarcerated, already knew one of their signature ideas was to take the group out for a spa day. Their adult leader, Tiffany Brown, guided them through the steps they would need to take to get there, like finding a spa and booking it in advance.

“We passed one coming up here,” Michael Glenn said as the group tossed around spa ideas. Michael, 16, is a junior at the School at Marygrove, and he’s looking forward to the spa day to help him nurse an old back injury from football. 

Getting young people involved in addressing their mental health needs is important, Michael said, because many of them would otherwise stay silent about their struggles.

“Young adults don’t really express themselves,” he said. “It’s not that we’re afraid to. I guess it feels uncomfortable or unnatural. We don’t want to be a burden to others. So … this really helps out.”

Developing Despite Distance provides group counseling to the young men. The organization also works with them to connect with their incarcerated parents and helps them with visits. 

The grant program “is a blessing,” said Brown. Not only will it allow for the spa day, but it will also pay for fitness training, more counseling, and a stipend for the young men for participating in Saturday counseling sessions. It’s the first time the participants will receive pay.

“When we have money in our pockets, we feel better, and that is really a form of self care,” Brown said.

Brown has often talked to the youth about her own self-care practices, which include getting massages. It gave the students the idea to do the same for themselves. Society, Brown said, doesn’t always give Black boys and men “the space to act like their wellness matters.”

“They’re often just putting on this mask like they’re OK. And so places where we can intentionally make them pause and really identify how they’re feeling in a safe, non-judgmental way, and provide support so that they can refill and recharge — that’s the root of what we do.”

Having an incarcerated parent means these young men have challenges that go beyond the pandemic.

“My biggest challenge is that they’re in schools, community centers, on our sports teams, and we’re not acknowledging that they even exist as a community … as a system. So the biggest challenge is that they are often suffering silently,” Brown said.

Over at the Eastside Community Network, cooking was the most popular program before the pandemic. Students would come together, cook, and then dine together.

“The students have said that … builds community,” said Tanya Aho, the adult leader for the group. But the kitchen was in need of a remodel, so the cooking sessions ended.

“This is completely student-led,” Aho said of the kitchen remodel. “They did the budget, they did all the research of the cabinets and the stove. They’ve done the design. They did the demo. They’ll be painting the cabinets.”

Charles, who has relied on sports and drawing to stay connected, wasn’t there for the demolition. But he’s involved in all of the planning and helping choose the finish on the cabinets, the color of the floors, and the type of countertops. He said bringing back the cooking program will be good, in particular, for students who feel disconnected.

“It brings a family atmosphere to our youth group,” he said.

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