How schools are seeking to overcome pandemic-related mental health challenges and the general impact of long-standing inequalities.
Young people across Detroit 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 potentially earn thousands of dollars for making it happen.
This resulted in a multitude of ideas as diverse as the young people themselves: A wellness room with zen and soothing activities. A day at the spa for young men whose parents are incarcerated. Renovation of the kitchen so that young people can meet for dinner and fellowship. A haven for LGBTQ students.
These are just some of the 40 ideas, submitted by people aged 9 to 23, who received a share of a $544,000 prize pool provided by the Skillman Foundation (a Chalkbeat funder), under a new grant program aimed at tackling mental illness. health and wellbeing. Winners received between $5,000 and $20,000 to develop their plans.
The one common thread running through all of these concepts is that while there are adult allies helping, the students were in the driver’s seat. They come up with 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 a connection with each other.
Charles is part of a group of young people from the Eastside Community Network whose grant will be used in part to renovate a kitchen at the center and make it a place where young people can cook, eat and hang out together.
Young people like Charles “are ready and able leaders,” who are “enriched with a lot of ideas,” said Lindsey Barrett, associate program officer at Skillman who led the effort.
Charles said the pandemic left him isolated and turned him into an introvert because he spent so much time learning remotely. Things are looking up for students now that they are learning in person, he said, but not all young people have re-engaged.
“You have to consider that maybe some students went through something during the pandemic, maybe a family member died,” Charles said. “For me, three members of my family passed away during the pandemic and it was difficult for my family and for me personally.”
Report after report has highlighted the heightened mental and emotional health needs of students due to the pandemic. Long periods of remote learning have left students feeling isolated and disconnected from school and their classmates. Educators are trying to address this problem by investing COVID relief money in mental health, but staffing issues have hampered efforts.
In Detroit, young people told Skillman officials they needed safe spaces to connect with 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 these bright young people really put their well-being first, and they do that by leading their own solutions,” Barrett said.
On a recent Saturday, dozens of grantees gathered in a room at the Northwest Activities Center in Detroit to receive project planning training facilitated by the Neutral Zone, an Ann Arbor youth-led organization. They lay on the floor, working in groups as they mapped out their goals and the steps they needed to take to achieve those goals.
The young men of Developing Despite the Distance, a program for men aged 10 to 24 with a parent who is incarcerated, already knew that one of their key ideas was to take the group for a day at the spa. Their adult leader, Tiffany Brown, walked them through the steps they would need to take to get there, like finding a spa and booking it in advance.
“We ran into one coming here,” Michael Glenn said as the group brainstormed spa ideas. Sixteen-year-old Michael, a junior at Marygrove School, is looking forward to a day at the spa to help with an old football injury on his back.
It’s important to involve young people in addressing their mental health needs, Michael said, because many of them would otherwise remain silent about their struggles.
“Young adults don’t really express themselves,” he says. “It’s not that we’re afraid. I guess it’s uncomfortable or abnormal. We don’t want to be a burden on others. So… that really helps.
Developing Despite the Distance offers group counseling for young men. The organization also works with them to connect with their incarcerated relatives and helps them with visitation.
The grant program “is a blessing,” Brown said. Not only will this allow for the day at the spa, but it will also pay for fitness training, more counseling and an allowance for young men for attending Saturday counseling sessions. This is the first time that participants will receive compensation.
“When we have money in our pockets, we feel better, and that’s really a form of self-care,” Brown said.
Brown often spoke to young people about her own self-care practices, including massage. This 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 well-being matters.”
“They often put on this mask as if they were fine. And so places where we can intentionally get them to stop and really identify what they’re feeling in a safe, non-judgmental way, and provide support so they can recharge and recharge – that’s the root of this that 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 don’t even recognize that they exist as a community…as a system. So the biggest challenge is that they often suffer in silence,” Brown said.
At the Eastside Community Network, cooking was the most popular program before the pandemic. The students gathered, cooked, then dined together.
“Students said that…builds community,” said Tanya Aho, the group’s adult leader. But the kitchen needed updating, so the cooking sessions came to an end.
“It’s completely student-run,” Aho said of the kitchen renovation. “They did the budget, they did all the research for the cupboards and the stove. They did the design. They made the demo. They will paint the cabinets.
Charles, who relied on sports and drawing to stay connected, wasn’t here for the demolition. But he is involved in all the planning and helps choose the finish of the cabinets, the color of the floors and the type of counters. He said the return of the cooking program would be good, especially for students who feel disconnected.
“It brings a family atmosphere to our youth group,” he said.