Adolescents today are struggling with challenges in their homes and community. They ultimately bring those issues into the classrooms. Credit: Nigell Moses, Verite

The tension in Kristlynn Collins’ house had gotten so bad last year, she thought running away was her only option. 

The memories are still painful. Her eyes dart from the blue brick walls of the theater classroom at John F. Kennedy High School then back down to her desk. Collins, an 18-year-old senior in Orleans Parish, remembers writing a long letter to her parents before packing up to leave her home in December of last year. Trying to escape her parents’ expectations, Collins felt alone and didn’t know where to turn for help. It was a time made worse by the death of her cousin, who had been breathing off of a ventilator before she died from COVID.

“Every single last organ except for her brain gave up,”  said Collins as she questioned her family’s decision to remove her cousin from the ventilator. 

Collins is one of many teens in New Orleans and throughout the nation who have experienced mental health crises at one time or another. From living in a global pandemic, to dealing with day-to-day emotional stressors, 71% of young people ages 17 to 25 have had feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, according to a 2019 study by the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Adolescents today are struggling with challenges in their homes and community. They ultimately bring those issues into the classrooms. Unfortunately, schools and teachers are often too overwhelmed to address the emotional needs of students. The desire to help falls short because of a lack of mental health resources in many educational institutions. 

Advocates say it is important that schools respond to the challenges that their students face daily. Partnerships with community-based organizations are a step toward understanding trauma and students’ experience, said Ron McClain, a licensed clinical social worker and advocate with the Institute of Mental Hygiene, an organization that encourages optimal mental health for New Orleans families and children through funding and supportive services.

“The public school district has access to so many children and families,” McClain said. “Our goal is to have a partnership that will result in better services to children and families.”

With a mission to serve families and children of Black and indigenous people of color, the Institute of Mental Hygiene has provided resources to more than a million programs and operations in schools. Part of the institute’s funding has been used to inform people who work with children who have had adverse childhood experiences and to establish what might be the best approach to helping the children thrive. 

 According to the 2021 U.S Surgeon General’s Advisory, “Protecting Youth Mental Health,” Black youth experienced the threat of stress, depression and anxiety at higher rates than white or Asian students.

“Young people are experiencing isolation in a totally different way than they were before,” said Chabre Johnson, a licensed clinical social worker for the Youth Empowerment Project, a community- based nonprofit organization serving young people in New Orleans. Its mission is to address the “unmet needs,” of youth in the community by providing educational assistance, enrichment activities and support services.

Since the school year began, five students at Collins’ high school have been killed in gun violence. One of the students was shot to death by a group that ambushed him while he was getting on the bus. 

Collins remembers a transfer student she had become close to before he was killed. She and her cousin had tried to contact him for weeks on his cellphone. The cousin began to panic. “I think he’s dead, he’s not answering,” she said. 

After weeks of searching, police found the transfer student in an abandoned house in the 7th Ward, shot dead. “It was just horrible. That was my cousin’s friend and we all got close. He was like family,” Collins said. 

Young people enjoy the recreation facilities at the Youth Empowerment Project facilities. Credit: Courtesy Youth Empowerment Project

The death is an all-too common example of what many youths experience growing up in New Orleans. John F. Kennedy High School created a memorial to honor the five students who lost their lives. But many students may need the opportunity to process their feelings with someone trained to respond. 

Unfortunately, in many schools, there is only one social worker to serve hundreds of students. As a result, the responsibility of maintaining student wellness can fall through the cracks. 

But it’s not just about having the social worker on campus grounds, it’s also about relationships. Students in vulnerable situations said they don’t feel at ease talking to a social worker they have no emotional connection to or who they feel may not understand their pain. 

It’s important for teachers to build a personal relationship with their students, said educator and performing arts teacher, Keyontae Hamilton, who teaches at John Kennedy High School in Gentilly.

“There’s a barrier that sometimes exists between students and teachers because a lot of educators aren’t sensitive to the needs of all kids,” Hamilton, 35, said. In Hamilton’s decade of teaching, she said she has learned that one of the aspects to being a successful teacher is creating a safe space for students to open up. “You can’t teach the child until they feel comfortable with you as a person,” she said. But more importantly, students want to know that they are being heard and understood. 

When there’s a severe mental health breakdown in the classroom or in the school setting, many educators who have limited training in mental health, need assistance.

Eleventh grader Kammrun Kaisur, 17, said he doesn’t believe teachers are engaging with students on an emotional level. They don’t even ask basic questions like “‘How’s Kammrun doing today? What do you have going on?’” Kaisur said.

To fill in the gap, Hamilton is using performing arts to provide a safe and creative space for her students. Her students are working on a play called “Growing Pains.” They are drawing from personal experiences like cyberbullying, gun violence, and discrimination against gay students. The play reveals the trauma and stressful situations high school students face. 

New Orleans public schools also can partner with community enrichment programs like the Youth Empowerment Project that bring holistic services inside the school buildings. YEP was founded one year before Hurricane Katrina by “three juvenile justice advocates,” supporting young people re-entering their community after incarceration. The organization uses mentorship programs and a  hands-on approach. 

“We make contact at least three times a week with one of those having to be face-to-face,” Johnson said of those in the YEP program. “We go into the schools, we check on attendance, we check on grades.” 

In her nine years working at YEP,  Johnson has built relationships with young people and families. In the YEP mentors program, she works mostly with youth involved in the justice system, before or after they appear in court. Using preventative and supportive techniques, the goal is to “stop them from getting deeper into the system,” she said.

The program has grown to develop a number of services. YEP has several buildings on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, where there’s a youth-run bike shop, a youth works thrift shop, and a youth center. 

These images were taken on the Momenta Project New Orleans 2019: Photographing Nonprofits workshop in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo © /Momenta Workshops 2019. Credit: Courtesy of Youth Empowerment Project

It’s communal services like YEP Enriches, an out-of-school enrichment program for ages 7 to 18 where kids can engage in a variety of activities from joining a basketball team, art, cooking classes, and homework help. To help support high school students, they created YEP Educates and YEP Works. These programs help students transitioning into post-secondary education, secure financial aid and training programs. 

The organization is a safe haven for many young people in the city. YEP helped Jamon Williams, also known as Coach Jay, during difficult times in his life.

“I was getting put out of the house at a young age. I didn’t have anywhere to go,” said Williams, who has been in YEP since age 10 and is now a mentor and basketball coach for the program. “It’s like my second home right here because they gave me a safe space,” he said.

Funding can make a difference. YEP received funding from the Institute of Mental Hygiene, which provided resources to help train mentors as mental health aids. The mentors learned ways to approach certain situations and to better understand the needs of children in challenging circumstances.

Mental health advocates say creating safe trauma-informed spaces inside of schools can allow more students to feel comfortable with their teachers and on campus counselors. Students say the relationships between teachers and students can be improved with more personal engagement. A more personal touch can help build a solid connection for kids to express their emotions, they say. 

It’s the way teachers interact with students that leaves a lasting impact, Kaisur said. He wants his teachers to be better people.

“For a lot of these kids that come here [John F. Kennedy High School], the tone and mood for the rest of the day is set by their teachers,” Kaisur said. “I would rather see my teacher learn more and reflect more of themselves, become better and be able to grow as people.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the Youth Empowerment Project was created after Hurricane Katrina. YEP was founded a year before the hurricane. The story has been updated.

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New Orleans native Nigell Moses graduated summa cum laude from Xavier University of Louisiana with a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication. She is a published contributing writer, with stories in The...