register here for The 74’s daily newsletter. Donate here to support The 74’s independent journalism.
“Lifelines in Austin: Fighting the Teen Mental Health Crisis – After two years of fear and isolation among teens across the country, teen suicide attempts are on the rise along with substance abuse rates Anger and despair are palpable in the hallways of middle and high schools, students say, as the pandemic’s youth mental health crisis rages on.But counselors, mentors and teachers in Austin, Texas, have developed a plan, strategically deploying resources targeting suicide, teen alcoholism and social isolation. The approach is working. Teens and adults say they see glimmers of hope. In this series, The 74 examines three pre-pandemic programs offering lifelines to students in their distress at the end of the pandemic.
As Austin, Texas teens returned to school last fall after more than a year of remote learning at home, counselors were alarmed at how many were talking about suicide.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in suicidal ideation,” said Roxie Frederick, a counselor at the Austin Independent School District’s Alternative Learning Center, who often meets with the boys after their emotions turn into an angry confrontation resulting in heated arguments. disciplinary measures.
The teenagers are then sent to the alternate campus after a disciplinary incident, where Frederick gets them to talk about what’s really going on – and it’s not always easy to get them past monosyllabic responses.
Invest in independent journalism. And help The 74 make an impact.
Help us reach our Spring Campaign membership goal.
But once she does, Frederick discovers how many of them are losing hope – like many young people across the country who are battling mental health issues after two years of isolation, fear and struggle.
“Young men who seem tough open up about it.” she says, adding that this often means teenagers are pretty far into the crisis.
Austin’s teens are part of a larger, terrifying trend. In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association issued a joint statement declaring the mental health of children, especially children of color, a national emergency; and a Centers for Disease Control survey found that 20% of teens had considered suicide and almost 10% had attempted it.
But that same research offered a solution: Students who felt more connected to their peers had better mental health and were less likely to report considering or attempting suicide.
So even though the desperation at the heart of the mental health crisis is largely beyond Frederick and his colleagues’ control – they cannot bring back family members who died during the pandemic, parents’ job loss or social trust – they are committed to making sure young people can keep talking. To share their fears and frustrations before they run amok and end up being kicked out, or worse, succumbing to despair.
Many problems start in middle school, and this year’s 12-14 year olds are in a special situation.
The 7th grade boys at Covington Middle School missed a critical transition year, and they felt it. It’s always been tempting to act tough instead of asking for help, the boys said, but the pandemic has worked against them in several directions. It made them feel estranged from their classmates, it deepened their anxiety and frustration, and it created a sense that the whole world was too fragile to bear the burdens they were carrying.
Parents worried about their jobs and their health didn’t always have the bandwidth for the emotions of a child who misses their friends or struggles with school. Friends were accessible online, but crises in their homes often meant they had little to offer in support.
“Since the pandemic, you know, we’ve forgotten how to talk to people,” said Tremain Purnell, one of the kids in Project MALES.
Frederick knows the reality: there isn’t always a licensed counselor when a boy is in crisis, especially for families who can’t afford a private therapist. Schools rarely have the student-advisor ratio they need to meet demand. Knowing that mental health resources will be harder to access for young men of color, who disproportionately experience poverty and underfunded schools, she often connects them with Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success ), a mentorship program primarily for young black and Latino men. .
The setting of the group makes it seem normal to talk about hard feelings. It gives them a language to describe their struggles. And when the boys are done with their time at the alternative center, usually just a few weeks, there’s likely already a Project MALES group on their home campus where they can continue to get that support.
Serving approximately 200 boys across 13 Austin campuses, Project MALES is as much preventative as it is reactive. The mentors want to help as many boys as possible before something happens that would land them in an alternative school, disrupting their academic progress. They do this by helping them understand the social and emotional challenges at the heart of their behavior.
After two years of pandemic pressure, children need someone to talk to about difficult emotions more than ever. But it’s not easy to tell people how you feel, admitted Jordan Kennedy, a seventh-grader at Covington Middle School in Austin. Vulnerability and seeking support can be the opposite of the tough, unaffected personalities that young men try to project.
“It’s honestly a bit difficult, and sometimes we try to hide our feelings,” Kennedy said. Although he says he’s naturally quite outgoing and jovial, “there’s a kind of pressure, I’m not going to lie. 2020 and 2021 have been a lot.
It’s different when he goes to Project MALES. There, Kennedy and seven other boys get together to talk about the ups and downs of their week and practice asking each other and offering each other support. Their mentor, a University of Texas student, offers support based on more than a decade of research on improving the educational outcomes and lives of young Black and Latino men.
“We want to provide a space and an opportunity for men to have these conversations that they might not be able to have elsewhere,” said Emmet Campos, director of the MALES Project and the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color. Sessions often start with the boys sharing their “goods and shits” from the week, he said, and using those experiences to work on social and emotional skills. These “power skills” have always been needed, he said, but the pandemic has made it even more necessary. Whatever challenges they faced, they were exacerbated by the isolation.
But staying connected via Zoom was nearly impossible, the Covington boys said, especially since they started middle school with a group of kids they had never met before.
“I barely spoke. I don’t really like talking on computers,” Purnell said.
Most kids, tired of online learning, weren’t as engaged in online mentoring, Campos said. “You can’t replace in-person engagement for young men”
A year online didn’t give them much to fall back on when they came back this year either.
“I wouldn’t be able to know people by computer because I might not know what they look like,” Kennedy said. Since they came back, “there has been a kind of awkwardness”.
The Project MALES group helped alleviate that discomfort, especially for those members who were most uncomfortable coming back, he said. “When I joined, there were more people to talk to, more teamwork, more collaboration.”
It’s also a place where talking about your feelings is not just allowed, but encouraged and shaped by the mentor, Purnell said. It’s easy to follow the movement. “If someone is feeling down, you can ask them ‘what’s up, how are you?'”
It feels natural and laid back, but the MALES Project’s mentorship is highly intentional. Housed in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, the mentorship is one of the pillars of a larger intercollegiate initiative to study the experiences of young men of color in social media. educational. As they searched for results, especially for Latinx men, Campos said, the initiative’s founders saw the value in mentorship and decided to put their research into action as a result.
“Mentoring is a powerful intervention strategy,” Campos said, “Anyone can point to a mentor in their life who has made a difference.”
Project MALES staff are paid PhD students and undergraduate volunteers who receive stipends and complete a two-semester course to prepare them to mentor middle and high school boys. Mentoring is aligned with the Austin Independent School District’s Social and Emotional Learning curriculum and uses what Campos calls “critical mentoring” and restorative justice. The boys chosen to participate in the program are often those who need mid-level behavioral intervention, Campos explained. Instead of punishment, a Department of Justice grant has allowed Austin ISD to expand its restorative justice efforts with programs like Project MALES.
For students who end up at the Center for Alternative Learning after expulsion, Austin ISD has not abandoned restorative and therapeutic discipline, Frederick said.
Having groups like Project MALES on the ALC campus allows licensed professional counselors to focus on individual needs, she said. For some children, this will be their first and last access to professional mental health services. “There is definitely a shortage of therapists in Austin.”
Many would benefit from more focused therapy, but much can be done if these students are willing to talk to a caring adult and their peers about their feelings. “If I can just show you that it’s okay to talk about your feelings,” Frederick said, she can connect them with support, often Project MALES or Communities in Schools, at their home campus.
Given the prevalence of the crisis, she added, every school would benefit from a full-time presence to be there when needed, whether it be school staff, mentors or school managers. non-profit case of Communities in Schools. A scheduled check-in with a counselor or mentor is great, she said, but children can’t always schedule their seizures based on adults’ availability. The biggest impact will be in the moment, she said. “The real work happens when they slam the door and walk out of the classroom.”
Subscribe to The 74’s newsletter
Submit a letter to the editor