Boston teens of color struggle to find help in mental health crisis

At a party in Roxbury, a hundred teenagers sit to create images on tables covered with brushes, acrylic paint and canvases divided into four sections: spiritual, emotional, physical and mental.

“There are a lot of people who can’t express themselves in words, so we share how we feel through painting,” said Vanessa Lopes, 15, who painted a bandage covering a jagged crack on the cloth.

Last month, this artistic exercise was organized by the Center for Teen Empowerment, as part of the non-profit organization’s Peace Week, a series of events focused on raising mental health awareness for young people in the Boston communities of color. “Young black and brown kids carry this fear and anxiety about what they see happening in the world, and no one creates a space for them to unpack that,” explained Abrigail Forrester, executive director of the center.

Erick Lando Caridad, 18, of Roslindale, paints during an art therapy exercise hosted by the Center for Teen Empowerment in Roxbury, May 18, 2022

Tori Bedford / GBH News

Young people in Boston’s communities of color struggled with mental health issues before the pandemic triggered a crisis that increased the need for already scarce services. Now community leaders say the children who need the most help face long waits or cannot find therapists or counsellors.

At the Boys and Girls Club of Boston, operations manager Eric Rivas responds to requests for help from young people, whose names have languished on waiting lists for months or even years.

“The tide has gotten bigger and bigger and there’s nothing to stop it, there’s no channel to open it up,” Rivas said. “It just keeps piling up.”

According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, black and brown children, especially those in communities with the highest rates of poverty and crime, face a distinct set of mental health issues. Last year, a coalition of medical leaders declared a national emergency for child and adolescent mental health due to the effects of the pandemic. The crisis has exacerbated poverty, housing and food insecurity, and illness and death from COVID-19, factors that disproportionately affect young people of color, who have half the access to mental health services than their white counterparts.

Some clients give up over time, with consequences that can be devastating.

“It’s life or death,” Rivas said. “It could be the difference between them not committing acts of violence or something as small as stealing or being more focused in school, to someone going to do something drastic because he doesn’t get the help he needs and feels like it’s the only way forward.

Reports of suicide attempts increased by nearly 80% among black adolescents between 1991 and 2019, while rates did not change significantly among other races and ethnicities during this period.

According to a Government study 2020. They were also more likely to have had a history of suicidal ideation or a family relationship problem.

In the past two years, Shonna Alexander of Dorchester has lost two loved ones to suicide: a 16-year-old cousin and her 22-year-old son’s best friend.

“They feel like they have no other way to shoot or don’t know what to do,” Alexander said. “It’s just sad.”

Alexander works with young people as the Patient and Community Relations Officer at Upham’s Corner Health Center in Dorchester. She and other advocates are doing what they can to meet with children in crisis regularly, but she says that can’t replace weekly sessions with a therapist her patients can trust. Like Rivas, Alexander said it has become nearly impossible for his patients to access the care they need.

“You’re either on a waiting list or you have to be fired to be put on another waiting list, and that can take a year or two,” Alexander said. “It’s just way too long.”

Young people discuss community solutions to trauma and mental health at an event hosted by the Center for Teen Empowerment in Roxbury, May 18, 2022

Tori Bedford / GBH News

It takes a lot of vulnerability to seek help, says Alexander, especially in communities that historically distrust medical systems and attach a stigma to seeing therapists.

“Growing up in a black home, it’s always been one thing, this therapy is negative or is seen as negative,” Alexander said. “Some people may be in therapy and not tell anyone because they don’t want anyone to think they’re weak. There’s a lot of shame there.

But even those willing to ask for help struggle to get it, Rivas said.

“We have black boys who end up becoming black men who can’t get help at that age,” Rivas said. “A lot of that is deeply rooted from the start of their lives. If we can’t find therapy for a young boy, what chance do they have as a grown man? »

Rivas said resources must come from people who understand the experiences these children are going through, and with no outside resources available, that responsibility falls on the adults in their lives.

“People who come out on top are those who have a strong community around them,” Rivas said.

As a young leader at the Center for Teen Empowerment, a poet, and an active member of her community, Lopes said she — and other young people — have a role to play in healing, even if outside resources are scarce.

“Sometimes I feel like no matter what work we do, there’s always going to be trauma,” Lopes said. “But I’m putting my voice out there to help.”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or use the Crisis Text Line by texting “Home” to 741741. Other Resources are available at

This story emerged from GBH News listening sessions held with community leaders in Roxbury and Dorchester.

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