D.C. Youth Advocate for Mental Health Services

Members of Generation Z, often referred to as the iGeneration because of their infinite access to technology and social media, suffer from mental illness at a rate unlike that of their older counterparts, due to unaddressed trauma and a widening gap in community- and school-based mental and social services.

That’s why a group of young people affiliated with the Black Swan Academy has issued a call to their elected officials to invest in District youth’s collective mental, social and emotional well-being.

Their advocacy counts as part of the #LetMeVent campaign, an effort to boost the youth’s voice in discussions about their daily experiences.

“Some kids with [Individual Education Plans] go to counselors to express themselves, but not all students are provided these services,” Black Swan Academy Youth Leader Ty’kirah Ellis told D.C. Council members on April 4 during her testimony at the Joint Budget Oversight Hearing during which she repeated “Let me vent” several times.

Ty’kirah cited evidence from Georgetown Law School Juvenile Justice Center about the lack of mental health services in schools with a heavy police presence. She also spoke about the harmful effects of unaddressed mental illness and how current conditions don’t allow young people to say what’s on their mind.

“Clinical depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder affect students,” Ty’kirah said. “When these things aren’t addressed, reactions can be students hurting themselves or something else bad happening. We need more counselors and social workers in our schools. We need supplementary and public health support rather than suspensions and jail.”

As a follow up to their D.C. Council appearance, the youth leaders of the Black Swan Academy led a rally at the Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Northeast. Access to mental health services for youth affected by neighborhood violence counts among the key tenets of The 2019 Black Youth Agenda, compiled by middle and high school youth from Wards 7 and 8.

Research shows that unmitigated mental illness can lead to suspensions, stints in the juvenile justice system and suicide. One in seven young people across the country — more than 7 million — grapple with at least one mental disorder, including attention deficit disorder, depression and anxiety, a University of Michigan study found last year. Researchers estimated that half of those youth fell through the cracks, never receiving the help they desired.

During his April 4 testimony, Black Swan Academy member and IDEA Public Charter School student Jalen Gross reflected on his struggle to access mental health services after his mother died.

“I needed dire services. I waited days for help only to talk to a counselor for 30 minutes. Because of there being only one therapist, I thought it was useless to talk at that point,” Jalen, 17, said. “I’m asking the D.C. Council to devote funds for student mental health services. It’s about the hearts of youth in this community.”

Since its inception, the Black Swan Academy has provided District youth with the tools they need to organize in their communities and engage their elected officials. Program offerings include the annual “I Have Pride” Black history and culture essay writing contest, the Youth Civic Leadership Summit and the year-round after-school activities in schools located east of the Anacostia River.

Samantha Davis, founder and director of the Black Swan Academy, said The 2019 Black Youth Agenda culminates a series of discussions youth had about issues affecting them.

“In the long term, we want to shift the culture so there are young Black people at the decision-making table,” Davis said. “Young Black people are impacted the most by the social issues: gun violence and lack of housing and mental health services. These are the most prevalent issues that they want their leaders to invest in. We want to support that and foster an environment for these young people to thrive.”

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