2 Boston organizations helping teens of color deal with mental health issues

By Courtney Cole, WBZ-TV

BOSTON – People of color face challenges unique to their communities when it comes to mental health.

Two organizations in Boston are working to meet the growing demand for resources for teens.

For the teens who gather at the Teen Empowerment Center, it’s a place of healing.

“I can really be myself, you know what I’m saying? Without the condemnation. I can be free,” Breanna Boden told WBZ-TV, saying it has changed her life dramatically. “Before I got here, mentally, I was far away. I was short, you know what I’m saying?’

Vondel Martinez said he was depressed when he first learned about the center.

“It definitely hindered a lot of my ambitions, a lot of my goals. I didn’t want to do anything. But since after COVID, it’s been good, I’ve been trying to get back into the ring of things,” he told WBZ.

It’s not just the talk that keeps them coming back.

“They make music! They dance! They do photography, do anything art based to help the community! I was like you, I have to be here!” Boden said.

The center uses art to therapeutically help teenagers overcome their challenges and traumas to become the best version of themselves.

“I feel like in a way it gives me a purpose, more than what I had before. But it definitely had a positive effect on my mental health. Because you know, during the pandemic, just being at home all the time and not interacting with people, all the things that were going on during that time period, people dying, things like that, you know? It’s hard to be alone,” said another center member, Ashley Bell.

“Just the fact that this community is so positive and uplifting and breaks the generational cycles that we’ve faced for a long time,” Boden said.

Cycles that existed even before the pandemic began, discouraging communities of color from seeking mental health help.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston also work every day to break these cycles.

“There has always been a demand for mental health services. The pandemic has simply increased the issues surrounding mental health,” said the organization’s vice president of program operations, Andrea Swain.

According to a study published last year by JAMA Pediatrics, children of color living in communities with higher rates of poverty and crime face unique mental health challenges.

“When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, if you’re in a family that’s struggling to put food on the table, struggling to buy clothes, struggling to have safe, affordable housing, you’re actually telling young people that they maybe they don’t matter. And that’s what our young people are facing, chronic poverty, that violence in the community,” Kevin Barton, executive director of YouthConnect, told WBZ.

YouthConnect is a Boys & Girls Clubs program that places licensed social workers in Boston police departments to help young people and their families deal with everyday trauma.

“We pick up that phone and call them after a police officer refers us,” Barton said. “And about 84% of people say yes, which is pretty amazing. And that tells me there is a need.”

Barton said last fiscal year YouthConnect served 537 young people and more than 1,400 family members.

“I can tell you that last year, in terms of outcomes, for over 90% who had mental health issues as something they noted as their biggest problem, over 50% made progress. So that tells us something. It works,” Barton said.

Now he says it’s time for investment to match demand so that young people in need are not left to fend for themselves with their mental health.

“We’re not in the business of throwing anybody out. And that’s why every young person should know that there are second, third and fourth chances,” Barton said.

A chance to be seen, heard and know they matter.

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