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Borough students talk mental health, racism in local high schools

By Brie Zeltner and Sarah Gandluri

For Justin Soyka, the crisis came in middle school. 

During his 8th grade year, he survived two suicide attempts, and was hospitalized twice before he was able to get help for his depression, ADHD and crippling anxiety.

“Growing up it wasn’t so easy not loving yourself and not being that ‘perfect image’ of what society portrays or what people expect,” Soyka, 18, told a group of youth peers during a recent discussion of the impacts of mental health issues and racial inequity on young people on Staten Island.

The event in late May was part of an ongoing effort to hear and highlight the voices and experiences of local youth organized by the Staten Island Partnership for Community Wellness (SIPCW), a non-profit that focuses on improving community health and co-hosted by America’s Promise Alliance, a national network of groups designed to improve conditions for young people. 

SIPCW has been working with a core group of about a dozen diverse, cross-island teens since March with the original goal of developing detailed recommendations for local policy makers and education officials. The pandemic, funding and time limitations all made those goals difficult, though. 

And more importantly, said SIPCW Youth Action & School Support Lead D’Arcy Hearn, the students were more interested in sharing their stories, and experiences, with each other.  

“It was important to center the event outcomes based on what the youth planners wanted to achieve, not project adult-centric values onto them,” said Hearn.

So the event, and student work since then, has focused on creating a safe space for honest, vulnerable storytelling as a way to build community among young people.

Mental health struggles common

Stories like Soyka’s are unfortunately not uncommon among Staten Island youth, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse, with sharp increases in suicide attempts and other mental health disorders.

Even before COVID, about 36 percent of Staten Island high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless every day for two or more weeks in a row in the previous year, according to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey distributed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most recent data available. 

In the same survey, 16 percent of Staten Island students reported seriously considering a suicide attempt, and 10 percent reported attempting suicide. 

Bullying, harassment and intimidation, which are reported by nearly half of Staten Island students, only add to stress and anxiety.

“I used to have such bad anxiety that I couldn’t walk on the bus,” Soyka, who graduated from Curtis High School in 2020 and now attends Borough of Manhattan Community College, said in a recent interview. “I felt like all eyes were on me. I pushed myself into a corner where I couldn’t breathe.” 

Soyka feels his story may resonate with other students: “You never know what someone else is going through, and maybe my story could help them,” he said. 

Racism and mental health ‘collide’ 

Youth leaders chose to focus on mental health and racial justice, in part, because the two so often intersect, they said.

“Racism is a mental health issue because racism causes trauma,” said Qawiyat Adesina, a senior at Curtis High School. 

Fathia Qandeel, a senior at Port Richmond High School who practices the Muslim faith and wears a hijab, described some of the effects of race-related microaggressions on her and her family. 

“I’ve gotten attacked before-- people have tried to take off my hijab, yelled things at me, cursing me out,” she said. “I feel like it’s wrong and upsetting for people of color like me who feel like they’re more restricted because they’re afraid that they’re going to get hurt.”

The students also spoke of the way students of color are treated differently than white students when they have mental health issues. 

“BIPOC youth with behavioral and mental health conditions are more likely to be directed to the juvenile justice system instead of to a specialty care institution than white youth,” said Adesina. 

Kiara Brown, a recent Curtis High School graduate, added:  “BIPOC youth are treated more like criminals when they have mental health crises,” with school security sometimes being called for students of color who are having panic attacks, labeling the behavior as trouble-making, rather than a health issue.

Shining a light on hope, solutions

These overlapping conflicts can be daunting; however the event shone a light on hope, and the change that Generation Z can create. Within smaller breakout rooms, groups discussed solutions and proposed ideas on how to combat racism and the stigma surrounding mental health.

Soyka suggested improving responses to mental health crises, proposing to reduce police funding and reverting taxpayer dollars towards other, more safe and humane options for de-escalating these situations. He added that making first responders properly trained in mental health and de-escalation would greatly benefit people of color and other marginalized groups. 

Students also pointed out that our new digital era has provided activists from across the globe a way to spread information and awareness to millions. Through the media and internet, activism can become accessible to everyone, they said.

Organizers with SIPCW hope that the student leaders bring back what they learn to their schools, peer groups, families and neighborhoods, and create lasting connections with their fellow students across the borough.

“Most importantly, I hope they feel empowered, inspired, and confident in themselves, and that they know that their voice matters,” said Hearn. 

The students agreed that having the support of peers and adults to share their stories is invaluable.

“I am glad I have this platform to share my story and meet other people who have experienced similar things. I learned this is a global issue and I am not alone,” said Qandeel.

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