Baltimore 17-year-old Kamri Moses used to get headaches from staying up all night, walking her friends through mental health crises.
D’Aubre Lewis and Taylor Clinton can relate. For years, the high school students have spent hours on the phone with their peers, listening to them vent or just being there for them until they fall asleep.
And that was before they had the backing of a team of social workers and clinicians.
Now, after receiving months of training through the Healing Youth Alliance — a youth-powered mental health advocacy organization that was formed in the early days of the pandemic — Moses, Lewis and Clinton understand how the mental well-being of Baltimore’s Black community has been shaped by systemic racism and structural inequity. They get the implications of how overwhelmingly white the field of social work is.
And they’ve learned to see the world through the South African concept of ubuntu — or, “I am because we are.”
“You can’t do this without the other people,” Lewis said. “You can’t heal without your community healing.”
The Healing Youth Alliance was created through a partnership between the Black Mental Health Alliance, the University of Maryland School of Social Work and a Baltimore-based nonprofit. Its mission is to share mental health information with young people through an “unapologetically Black” curriculum — one that’s anchored by the experiences of Black change-makers in history and set in the context of systemic racism.
For 10 weeks, eight young members of the alliance learned about how mental health issues manifest within the Black community from a team of Black social workers and educators. They picked up coping strategies to share with their peers and emerged equipped to fight the stigma about mental health issues in their neighborhoods and to train other young people and the agencies that serve them.
Earlier this month, the organization held its inaugural virtual conference, attended by 655 people, including City Councilman Zeke Cohen and representatives from the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success. The mental health ambassadors in attendance — including Clinton, Lewis and Moses — walked audience members through presentations on identity, substance use issues and healing from depression and trauma.
“I was particularly moved by the leadership of the young people. It was their voices, it was their work, and they were so thoughtful and engaging,” Cohen said. “To me, it’s just another example of the power that young people in our city have to really change lives.
Kyla Liggett-Creel, who helped found the organization, viewed the conference as a way to introduce the city to the Healing Youth Alliance. Moving forward, she said, agencies that want such presentations by the youth will need to pay for them.
The idea for the alliance came to Liggett-Creel after a long career working to support the mental well-being of young people. As an assistant clinical professor for the University of Maryland School of Social Work and lead strategist for the Office of Youth and Trauma Services at the Baltimore Health Department, Liggett-Creel would sit in meetings to discuss strategies for promoting healing among this population and wonder why there weren’t more young people in attendance.
“I’m always one where it’s like, why would I come up with solutions for youth, when we could just ask the youth what they think would be helpful?” she said. “That seems like a better idea.”
Bringing young people into the conversation, Liggett-Creel said, allows them to not only present data about mental health issues in the Black community, but share stories about their own experiences. Liggett-Creel said several Healing Youth Alliance members have spoken about witnessing community violence, drug sales, overdoses and the effects of alcoholism and eating disorders.
“Kids are seeing it,” she said. “And then we’re not talking about it, which leaves them alone to figure it out and deal.”
Well before 2020, Black Americans were more likely than their white counterparts to report persistent symptoms of hopelessness and sadness, according to the Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In many ways, though, the coronavirus pandemic has cranked up the volume on this disparity. Not only have Black people been disproportionately sickened and killed by the virus, but a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the summer shows that the mental well-being of respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 and those who identified as non-Hispanic Black has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.
It was in this landscape that the Healing Youth Alliance began. Through the summer and into the fall, the teenagers joined Zoom calls during their lunch breaks at work, pulling up their training sessions on their phones as they sat in their cars.
Nia Jones, a consultant with the Black Mental Health Alliance, walked students through three specific diagnoses — depression, anxiety and eating disorders — and discussed what they might look like in the Black community.
She also shared her own experience in battling depression and anxiety since she was 13 years old. She recalled how her classmates struggled with similar conditions: At the start of one lunch period when she was in elementary school, she said her friend remarked that she was going to kill herself as she removed a spork from its plastic packaging.
Though mental health issues were common at her high school, too, she said very few people knew how to talk about it.
“It was, you know, pray about it or continue to do your best and buckle down,” she said. “There was no conversation about what I was experiencing internally because no one could see it.”
As part of their training, the young people also learn to consider mental health through an approach called “healing centered engagement” — a holistic, community-oriented therapeutic framework that is grounded in the concept of ubuntu.
This approach to mental health follows the idea that pain does not occur in a vacuum, explained Richard Rowe, resident consultant for the Black Mental Health Alliance. Instead, it emanates from societal systems — from schools to police departments — that can re-traumatize already traumatized populations.
Until police brutality, systemic racism, discriminatory practices and other injustices are all addressed, he said, young Black people will continue to experience mental health issues.
“There’s an African proverb that says, ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together,’” he said. “So, I’m trying to help these young people figure out how we go together, because we have to do something different from what we’re doing.”
Moving forward, the Healing Youth Alliance will begin to train its second cohort of young people soon, under the guidance of its first cohort.
Clinton, Moses and Lewis are excited.
“You know when a parent is raising a child, it’s like, I want you to be better than me, not be the same as me?” Moses said. “I want the people after us to be better than us, and the people after them be better than them, and just find new ways to grow and branch out.”
But no matter what the future holds, Liggett-Creel said, she has been blown out of the water by the ways in which the group’s members have grown over the past few months.
“The hardest part about being virtual is that I would just want to throw my arms around every single one of these youths to give them a hug. And just tell them how proud I am of them,” she said, dabbing tears from her eyes. “They’re just amazing.”