Metro Detroit youth advocate for mental health, uplift one another amid isolation

The twin crises of COVID-19 and racial reckoning have been tough on youth. At a time when they should be forming lasting connections and making plans for the future, they’re navigating uncertainty, grinding out virtual learning, and isolating themselves from friends. They’re acting as caregivers for family members, contributing as essential workers, and fighting for racial and social justice in their communities.


Despite hardship, many youths are rising to offer peer support and advocate for their own well-being.


“This is a really large shift in culture that takes kids away from the feeling of familiarity,” says Julie Weatherhead, director of Weathervane Counseling in Detroit. “Kids are experiencing the end of their school year, perhaps their entire school year, without any clarity or control.”


And though, she says, it seems much of the country “doesn’t want to deal with itself right now,” in terms of looking inward, expressing grief, and finding healthy coping methods, many of the young people she meets are “open and ready to talk about mental health and to receive support and guidance around that.”


Weatherhead serves as a mental health advocate, and an adult ally to the youth-led nonprofits Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan (DAYUM) and Detroit Heals Detroit.

During the pandemic, she’s helped students distribute self-care packages to their peers, host healing circles, connect as pen pals, and press for health and wellness.


Inspired by their advocacy, Weatherhead hosted a fundraiser within her own community last summer to raise $2,000 for both organizations, offer free counseling packages to six young people, and help fund a Youth Day of Healing for activists ages 13-19. The outdoor event, hosted by DAYUM last September, included yoga, poetry readings, relaxation and meditation, dinner, and viewing the movie "Black Panther."


Youth need healing opportunities right now, Weatherhead says. They’re processing trauma, even the trauma brought by the change of the pandemic, and their access to mental health support is more limited than ever. As a former school counselor, she knows how difficult it is to guide and support “unbelievable caseloads'' of up to 500 students while in person. “It’s a million times harder,” she says, for school counselors, social workers, and psychologists to reach their students online.

Yoga and breathing instructors Lauren Williams & Erin Allen with Day of Healing Participants outside Marygrove Conservancy Courtyard.


“Kids are struggling with mental health, and what are the larger mental health initiatives that either our government, schools, or systems are providing to lift [them] up through this situation?” There are none, she says.


And mental health means a lot of different things, especially now. “It’s surviving; it’s finding ways to build community, to give grace, and speak truth to power.”


Here's how area youth are addressing mental health issues in their communities.


Mental health as education justice


Eva Oleita, 17, lives in Woodhaven and is a senior and International Baccalaureate (IB) student at Cass Technical High School. She’s a member of Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan (DAYUM), an advocacy group fighting for justice in communities, accountability in leaders, and a seat at decision-making tables for marginalized youth.


Eva OlientaFinding a good balance between personal life and school is how Oleita currently defines mental health, but she hasn’t achieved that this year. It’s overwhelming, she says, attending online classes, keeping up the heavy IB homework load, applying to colleges and scholarships, all with a lack of in-person support and all while processing the world around her.


“To not be able to physically be with the people we know, trust, and love and would normally be talking to,” she says, “it's been really hard.”


Though she can’t be with peers physically, Oleita's found ways to work with students to address virtual learning challenges. DAYUM and allies have demanded shorter hours from districts, including Detroit Public School Community District (DPSCD), which implemented full school days (6-7 hours) rather than block schedules through sick-outs and petitioning. They’ve created an Online Bill of Rights for all students, establishing a student’s right to be comfortable, privacy, anti-racist curriculum, qualified teachers, and a break from standardized testing.


“When it comes to mental health, and even just the needs of students,” says Oleita, “you have adults making decisions for us without asking us what we need. And when they do ask, they do the opposite of that. So we just went straight to the students and were like, how can we help you?”


In November, DAYUM surveyed over 330 students across 17 districts in southeast Michigan, asking about their mental health and online learning experiences. The findings, which included an inequity in schedules correlated with wealth in communities (Detroit and Pontiac had some of the only full-day schedules), were presented to the State Board of Education. DAYUM says board members encouraged students to take their constructive suggestions directly to their teachers.


Undeterred, DAYUM continued applying pressure at the school board and administrative level. In late fall, DPSCD gave autonomy to its high school principals to make scheduling adjustments for their own communities. Cass Tech Principal Lisa Phillips has responded by adopting a block schedule, one Oleita says she and her peers proposed, and that received majority support from students, teachers and parents.


It’s a relief to sit in four online classes a day instead of eight, Oleita says, but she also misses in-person tutoring, starting her homework at the school media center and talking with teachers about assignments after class. The new schedule only works if everyone works at it together, she says; this is still a stressful time.


For example, fewer virtual hours aren’t a reason for teachers to “bombard students with additional work,” she says. And parents should understand their children are undergoing difficult change and taking on new levels of independence, which affect how they’re feeling, and likely their grades, she adds. Lastly, Oleita says students have done their part to create positive change to virtual learning, and it’s time for the administration to do theirs by working to improve educational systems as a whole.


With no easy solution, DAYUM continues to advocate for students as the school year continues. In February, the group hosted a virtual teacher-student roundtable focused on improving online learning. Teachers attended from the Michigan Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (MI CORE), committed to social, economic, and racial justice in education. Participants brainstormed how to understand each other’s challenges better and work together to create positive online learning environments.

Follow DAYUM on Facebook and Instagram and at, where you can donate now to support local youth through a spring Day of Healing presented by DAYUM and Weathervane Counseling.


Also check out Oleita's organization Black Lives Matter In All Capacities on Instagram @blmiac. Here, she and co-founder Ama Russell work to empower Black individuals through action, education, and awareness. They’ve partnered with DAYUM toward educational justice and held protests and healing events specifically for Black womxn and girls. The duo’s advocacy was influential in freeing Grace, a 15-year-old girl who spent 78 days at an Oakland County detention center last summer for not doing her online schoolwork.


Removing stigma


Lev Sklar and Blake Phillips are seniors at Berkley High School. Together they work to spark conversation with peers, particularly young men, around mental health and suicide. As youth board members of UMatter, a program of the West Bloomfield nonprofit Friendship Circle, they work alongside 30-plus teens to break down the stigma around mental health challenges and grow suicide prevention skills. When the board, guided by youth director Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, broke into smaller groups during COVID-19, Sklar and Phillips chaired a new committee focused on male well-being. Blake Phillips and Lev Sklar UMatters


“Many guys are reluctant to share what’s really going on,” says Sklar. “And it's not because males experience less mental illness; most suicides are males.” In 2018, the suicide rate among males was 3.7 times higher than among females, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health.


“We believe it’s because the environment you're inherently in as a guy is competitive, and you’re worried about other people thinking you’re weak or less because you’re dealing with challenges.”


Phillips says that’s how he felt. He started developing low self-confidence and severe body issues in the fourth grade and didn’t have a space to talk about that struggle until he got involved with UMatter his freshman year. “When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t like what I saw,” he says. “I was either fat or ugly. When I couldn’t do a push-up, I got really down on myself for that.”


The welcoming community at UMatter encouraged Phillips enough that he chose to speak that year at the organization’s annual community event, “One thing I wish you knew.”


“I thought if I could lend my voice, I could open up the conversation and help others,” he says.


Sklar and Phillips plan to foster greater dialogue through a guys-only version of UMatter “Teen Talks,” coming soon. The weekly youth-led offering, which has continued both virtually and socially distanced during the pandemic, works to build community among teens through open sharing. The friends plan to use televised football games and music listening parties to bring young men together, hoping for deeper conversations. One such talk will revolve around the idea of toxic masculinity.


“We don’t have everything figured out with the male stigma, and maybe that's not going away for a long time,” Phillips says. “But we're starting to talk, and that's a good thing. I'm excited to see 15-20 years down the road...I hope it’s dramatically changed.”


UMatter’s annual community event, “One Thing I Wish You Knew” will be held from 7-8 p.m March 14 on Zoom. The event highlighting vulnerability and honesty in sharing personal struggles is free to the public. Find out more information on Facebook @FCUMatter.


Mental health through racial justice


Kristian Matthews, 17, is a senior and National Honors student at Detroit Leadership Academy. She’s trying to stay engaged in Kristian Matthews, Detroit Heals classes, even though, right now, they don’t feel relevant to her life. With her mom recovering from cancer, she says it’s been difficult, as an only child, to “keep everything together” while maintaining her grades and making sure her household stays safe. She worries when friends call her to go places that they aren’t taking the pandemic seriously. Yet, staying inside “dealing with herself” brings on feelings of loneliness and depression.


Talking and messaging friends at all hours is what gets her through, she says and keeps her connected to the outside world. She also finds encouragement using her voice to advocate for her community and to participate in healing conversations among peers.


“There's something empowering about knowing someone else knows what you're going through and can meet you one on one [to say] I’ve felt that too,” she says. “You can’t take away their burden, but you can share it.”


A champion for youth mental health and for decreasing the stigma around mental health in the Black community, Matthews thrives on creating a safe place for others. She helps lead the nonprofit Detroit Heals Detroit, which serves youth ages 12-21 to combat trauma participants frequently face. What began as a writing project in Sirrita Darby’s Detroit Collegiate High School classroom has evolved into a program that focuses on “healing-centered engagement” and the dismantling of systems that oppress Detroit’s marginalized youth.


In COVID-19, the group has moved their bi-weekly “healing hubs” online. They’ve organized a campaign around defunding the police and found artistic ways to express their determination for a more just future. In collaboration with local artist Hubert Massey, they joined other DPSCD students to paint the “Power to the People” mural on Woodward Avenue last Juneteenth.


“The mural made me realize there are people out there that think exactly like me, that have the exact same problems as me, and they want to fix it as much as I do,” Matthews says.


One of those people is Brianna Donald. A freshman at Grand Valley State, she’s a co-founder and the vice president of Detroit Heals Detroit. A survivor of gun violence, Donald shares her traumatic experience with young people and the healing she’s found writing and talking openly about it.


She says she learned to trust others with her deepest feelings when Darby, her English teacher at the time, shared with students about her own hurtful experiences. She created a safe space for them to tell their stories and listen and learn about each other with compassion and respect. More and more, it became the space where they wanted to be.


“A few of us decided if this is happening with kids in our school,” says Donald, “it's probably happening in other schools in Detroit as well. So we thought it'd be good to show other people our process and how we came up with the healing circles.”


This spring, the organization’s healing hubs focus on creating life goals, racial healing, youth-led activism, education justice, healthy minds/healthy relationships, and Black joy as resistance.


Matthews and Donald are also at the forefront of the movement to remove police from schools in Detroit (#policefreeschools on Instagram) and to increase trauma-informed mental health approaches in schools. They and others from their group work with 482forward, an educational justice network of students, parents, teachers, and advocates who believe communities are responsible for the success and well-being of students.


Detroit Heals Detroit delivered 100 healing care kits in December for Detroit students and alumni who were negatively impacted by police presence in schools. They contained relaxation items, liberation, and anti-racism literature, writing journals, etc. On Instagram, group members like Matthews posed for “12 Days of Christmas” photos holding signs that read how they really need communities to invest.


“I don’t have a nurse at my school,” says Matthews. “We don’t have a library. Even though we're young, I've just felt I can do anything when I'm around people that think like me. I’m ready to do what it takes to fix whatever problem that’s placed in front of us.”


Listen to Matthews in her participation of February’s panel on Police Reform in Schools through the University of Michigan School of Social Work Engage. Also read Detroit Heals Detroit’s collective poem from 70 students on what healing in the classroom could look like. The poem was recently presented at The Michigan Council of English Teachers and is on Facebook @detroithealsdetroit.


Mental health through peer techniques


"Are Your Friends Truly Friends?"


This is the question Jada Samuels, 19, asks readers in the title of her latest social wellness blog post. If your “authentic self” isn’t valued and respected by the people you hang with, it’s time to get some new people, she advises.


A senior and National Honors student at Oakland Early College (OEC) in Farmington Hills, Samuels created the Mind Matters student organization when she saw many of her peers struggling with anxiety and a general lack of happiness. During her junior year, she hosted weekly conversations around common youth challenges and encouraged the brainstorming of stress-reducing techniques. When the pandemic hit, the club continued to meet online, but this school year, Samuels says, her group and many others have been canceled in the chaos of virtual scheduling.Jada Samuelsm Samwells Solutions


As president of the student government, she tries to stay connected with classmates as much as possible. “We definitely need that school community aspect because everyone’s feeling so isolated and separated from each other,” she says.


Outside of school, Samuels has looked for other ways to pursue her “passion for wellness strategies” and her desire to help students lead "a balanced life.” She’s been focusing on the health and wellness business idea she and her mom, Renee, have dabbled with for a couple of years. At Samwells Solutions, Renee Samuels, a veteran special education teacher with over 20 years' experience, seeks to help teachers and parents with best practices for working with children. Jada, on the other hand, wants to talk directly to kids.


“Not just because I am a student, but because that’s where all the toxic thinking really begins,” she says. Samwells stands for social, academic, and mental wellness. The LLC offers free print and video content and resources for parents, students, and teachers, as well as Renee’s book, “A Parent’s Guide to Supporting Children in Learning at Home.”


Before the pandemic, Jada created workshops aimed at helping students overcome the stressors of school life and toxic thinking. She had begun to set up speaking opportunities at a few middle schools in Bloomfield Township, but when COVID-19 hit, she says it all fell apart. Instead, she spent the summer transferring the content into a short video series called “Frightening Features of the Mind and Strategies to Combat Them,” available on her website and YouTube.


Even with a desire to be creative, it’s hard to be motivated right now, she admits. Besides “consuming” college classes, she works to occupy herself with hobbies, attempting Italian, playing the ukulele, and roller skating (now in the basement). But it takes a certain kind of motivation “to even get up and find a hobby right now,” she says. When she feels like shutting down, she forces herself to call a friend or talk with family.


Jada and her mom are currently working on videos about conversations that shift perspective. “We’re bringing new ideas to the table and letting the other know what it’s like to be in each other’s shoes,” Jada says. Although they don’t always agree, they’ve learned to have rich dialogue around their different opinions, she says. She’s hoping these candid multi-generational talks will help parents and children to nurture open and encouraging relationships.

Find Jada and Renee’s blog posts, videos and more on the Samwell Solutions website.
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Read more articles by Sarah Williams.

Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller