Acknowledging the Problem is NOT Enough: Mental Illness and Detroit Teens

It was a normal Monday morning, traffic was horrible, and when I came into work I found it necessary to put out several fires prior to even getting to my classroom. Classes unattended, explosive parents, and neurotic administrators. Calls from teachers because students are acting out of order, 1:1 conferences with students who had to be set straight so that they can correct their actions and continue on the road to success.

It is not even 9 am and I am tired. I am irritated. I think about things that I have to do. The fact that my students did not even try to perform on an multiple choice, open book test that I had administered the Friday before. I am thinking about my personal life and how things seem to be in disarray.  Requests for me to plan an end of the year trip for the students come from 3 different teachers.

I make my way up the stairs finally. That is when I see him. One of my former students from last year. A young man who was confident within his studies, achieved well, and had a wonderful personality. We have not conversed a lot this school year. I just figured he was busy living that upper classman life.

He was sitting at the table outside of my classroom.  I call his name as I am walking towards him and he does not answer. I wave my hands and he does not see me. As I get closer, I notice that he has earbuds in his ear, and his eyes are closed. I touch him, he does not respond. His eyes remain closed. I remove one of the buds from his ear, and I ask what is wrong. He does not respond. Instead, a single tear drops from his closed eye and lands on his arm.

What I saw, will forever be ingrained into my heart and mind.

He had cuts all over his exposed arm.  They were healing marks on top of scars of past instances where he made the decision to mutilate himself. My hands lightly touch his arm, and he opens his eyes. A look of sadness, a look of loss, eyes that I looked into every day for nine months, were no longer familiar to me. His spirit had dulled, his ability to speak lost.

After a few minutes of him not speaking to me, I go inside and alert his classroom teacher to what was happening. I briefly asked… What is going on? She stated that a few months ago he had a breakdown. I asked “Have you seen his arm?” Sadness swept over her face in acknowledgement of what I had said. She asked me to cover her classroom so that she could take him to an administrator to get  immediate help. I happily obliged.

When the teacher returned, I sat at my desk for a while and reflected. I anxiously tried to think of way to help this child. My mind flashed back to all of the times he smiled in my classroom, our laughs, our celebrations of his achievements, the hug he gave me every day. Here and now…. In the course of some months, he was a totally different young man.

I rose from my desk to find out what happened to the young man. I bounded down the stairs, and searched the hallways and classrooms to look for him. I found him in the hallway standing outside of his next class although he was more than 15 minutes early. I asked him what was going on and had he talked to someone. He told me that the Principal had him call his mother and then left him by himself.

The disappointment I felt was overwhelming. I asked him if he wanted to talk. He shook his head. I reached for his arm and placed my hand on the scars and looked him in his eyes and said Why? He shook his head, and then said he was dealing with a lot. I wrapped my arms around him and he hugged me back. I told him that if he wanted to talk to anyone to please come and find me. He told me he would. I told him that I love him very much, and he told me he loved me too.

In our building there is one social worker assigned to a building with close to 900 students. We do not have any psychological services available to our students in-house. What is supposed to happen in the event that a person to attend to students with emotional needs is not on staff, is that we are supposed to have someone come in on a contractual basis to service the students.

We Have Failed… and We Continue to Do So

Today, was an eye opener for me. While I know that I cannot take all of the problems of our youth upon my shoulders, I know that I will fight for this child. I have made the decision to make an inquiry with our administration as to why this child was just released when we have concrete evidence that he is hurting himself. My Principal is a white male who has worked in predominantly black schools. He is not ignorant to what is going on within the lives of our students who come from impoverished communities. So, how was it so easy for him to just turn his back? To not even attempt to take the child up to the social worker, or even yet, report the fresh cuts on the arms of this child?

Across the city of Detroit, services for students who have or are experiencing related circumstances and issues are not readily available. The protocol oftentimes is to require that the parent take the child in for mandatory therapy before they can return to school. However, in the event that the parent does not have health insurance, they cannot afford treatment. Oftentimes, parents will sign the child up for treatment, provide the school with documentation, and then remove the child from therapy because they cannot afford it and so that their child can return to school. 

If you venture into ANY of the schools within the suburbs of Detroit, you will find that they have a school nurse, multiple social workers, speech therapists, guidance counselors, a counselor and other staff as needed for their diverse student populations. At my school and many schools within the city of Detroit, there is no school nurse or health professional on campus, there is only one social worker and at my school in particular, there is no guidance counselor. How in good faith can we say that we are educating and nurturing the whole child?

Change only happens when we refuse to fall silent or have our voices muted. Tomorrow is a new day… However, the emails regarding what happened today will go out tonight. Passing the buck when a student’s life is in inherent danger, is not acceptable. Anywhere. We have to do what is right for our children. Simply because Black Children Matter too.






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