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These Students Found Mental Health Support in After-School Programs. See How

Students’ mental health and social-emotional needs have risen in recent years, but schools have reported feeling less equipped to meet those needs.

Schools often don’t have dedicated funding and staff for mental health, but may still offer some services for students, such as telehealth or referrals to outside professionals. A source of funds many schools have relied on to expand mental health services, federal COVID-relief dollars, is expiring later this year.

For some students, after-school programs have filled the gap. Studies suggest that after-school programs are beneficial to children’s social-emotional and behavioral health through activities designed to support social skills and peer relationships. Three students, who are youth ambassadors for the nonprofit advocacy organization Afterschool Alliance, talked with Education Week about how the programs they take part in helps their mental and social-emotional well-being. Their interviews, conducted separately by phone in February and March, have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Helping students deal with grief

Issa Ouarid, 15
After-school program: Life Pieces to Masterpieces in Washington, D.C.

The after-school program I attend is Life Pieces to Masterpieces. This is going to be my 13th year now. It is an art-based program that teaches Black and brown boys throughout Ward 7 of Washington, D.C., [in the eastern part of the city] and makes sure to give opportunities, because growing up here, we don’t really get that many opportunities.

We make paintings, either individually or by class or maybe a collaborative effort between all the classes. For me, I have made two paintings and I’m about to make my third soon. The paintings usually have something to do with our community or what we go through.

I’ll give you an example of one of the paintings I did. This past summer, I made a painting called “A Brother’s Experience.” Although I’m from Ward 7 in D.C., I’ve had multiple opportunities to go outside of the country, and that’s typically not something you would see for a kid that’s growing up in my neighborhood. The painting is me flying. I have a king’s cape on and a crown, and I’m holding the globe in my hands as I’m floating over my neighborhood. The story behind it is: No matter where you come from, it doesn’t determine where you can go in life. That’s helped numerous brothers realize that although they come from a neighborhood that is known to struggle, they can still put their minds to anything and do anything positive that they want and even explore the world like me.

Life Pieces is like a second home to me. It’s always felt like family there, especially with the staff who have watched me grow up. I remember the time that after my grandmother passed, I hadn’t turned 5 yet, and I was really struggling because that was the first time I ever lost somebody that was so close to me. Life Pieces helped me go through my grieving process and taught me and helped me use art to express my grief. They also made sure that I knew that even if I felt this way, I always had a home there and I always would be loved.

That’s something that a lot of the students also go through, not necessarily with just loss. We always make sure that we’re there for each other and make sure that our mental health is the main priority.

Helping students build self-confidence

Aurie-Anne Vixama, 14
After-school program: After-School All-Stars South Florida in Miami

I started [at] After-School All-Stars in 6th grade. We were in a pandemic, so I attended online. When we came back physically, the teachers, the help that was coming from everyone in the after-school environment, was just something very welcoming for me. I started seeing things in me that I didn’t know were there before. There were a lot of skills that After-School All-Stars was helping me grow. And I’m like, “this is something that can benefit me in the long run.” And I have just stayed that long and I’ve built great relationships that way.

Ever since I came here to America [from Haiti] when I was 7 years old, they were the ones who embraced who I was. It was just a community that has just helped me to be more comfortable throughout school and helped me to have better grades.

Bullying was a very big challenge. I did not speak the language. I used to have these hairstyles that—oh, my gosh, kids would make fun of me like it was a game. Bullying was a very big issue for me. And I used to fight with myself because I used to think that I wasn’t good enough. For example, a student would bully me into doing their homework for them, or bully me into doing something that I personally wouldn’t do, but I only did it because of fear. So fear and bullying were the challenges I faced.

After-School All-Stars let me know that I was worth more than I thought I was. They gave me the self-confidence that I was looking for and they built this foundation and let me know that I can be my own person and I can be who I aspire to be.

We have a “no judgment” zone in our program if you need to speak to a teacher or to a professional about anything that’s going on in life, in school, or anything that you think is wrong with you. We always have those little sessions with our teachers, if you ever need that help.

Connecting students with mentors

Jully Myrthil, 17
After-school program: Young Voices in Providence, R.I.

I’m in a lot of different after-school programs. One is Young Voices; I’m an activator and a board member there. It’s a youth organization at the forefront of advocating for policies affecting youth in the community. I’m also a project leader for multilingual learners. I’ve done workshops for over 200 teachers and staff in Rhode Island school districts around elevating youth voices and prioritizing mental health in and outside the classroom. I’m also the project leader for the ESSER funds. I was able to collect data on how the funds have been allocated throughout the Rhode Island school districts, and we’re still working on that project.

Those projects are important to me, because I don’t think a lot of my peers have the confidence to speak out about problems that are affecting them. I think it’s best to utilize my voice to see the changes that I want to see in my community, because if they’re not going to do it, then I have to. And I’ve just been around a lot of amazing people that really uplifted my voice and showed me that my voice can really make a change.

Through my after-school programs, I was able to get a lot of mentors. With Young Voices, Peter, the executive director, he’s one of my mentors. I’ll be a first-generation college student, and he has helped me navigate this whole college application process step by step. Applying to college, that itself is stressful. For me to have a lot of different mentors has been helpful to my well-being, knowing I’m not alone and that there’s support out there and I just have to ask.

Mental health is such a taboo topic in the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and other people of color] community, and if you don’t really talk about it, you’re not going to be able to address the root issue. I want to create a space where people of color can feel vulnerable and safe to really talk about the issues and action steps toward recovery. Learning more about mental health and how it negatively impacts people of color has given me the wisdom and knowledge I need to look at a holistic way of solving the issue.

A common factor that affects mental health challenges is a lack of communication, I think, because there’s so much support out there, but people don’t feel comfortable asking for help. Making sure that we have a community and that people know that they’re not alone—it’s very important to have these conversations to break down the stigma around asking for help, because we’re a community. We need each other. We can’t really go through this world alone.

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