A Fight For Mental Health In Minority Communities

BROOKLYN—She fought. She fought from high school to high school. Until Patice Ratliff started receiving counseling at her sixth high school, Brownsville Academy, she didn’t understand why fighting was always her first instinct.

“Counseling is not just ‘oh my God, I’m going insane,’ counseling is something different,” said Ratliff, 17, standing outside of Brooklyn Criminal Court after being arraigned for breaking the court order of protection her father placed against her. “You’re going to express everything that’s inside you; you’re going to talk it out to somebody instead of holding everything inside.”

Traditionally distrust of mental health services has run high in the black community but many parents and students are now seeking mental health initiatives and counseling programs in the city’s public schools. While some find that these programs are a significant step to improve the lives and academic performance of some of the most struggling students, the quality and availability of the programs makes the difference.

“Our kids are dying, plain and simple,” said Terrie Williams, the author of Black Pain (Scribner, 2008), a popular book that exposes the stigma of depression in the black community and advocates facing depression head on. “So many of them are not equipped to be emotionally or mentally strong enough to make themselves better by themselves. They need something—they need intervention.” Williams believes everyone should see a therapist if they can, but it is especially important for schools to provide counseling to teenagers who deal with trauma regularly.

There are 300 schools throughout New York City that provide licensed mental health services to address these very needs, according to Scott Bloom, director of mental health services for New York City Department of Education (DOE). He is also the only DOE employee dedicated to the program. The programs invite outpatient clinics, hospitals and child welfare programs to partner with public schools throughout the city to either work on site at the school or have students travel to their locations for treatment. Students may receive the services voluntarily or by referral through teachers, administrators or parents. However, if students do not have insurance, the agencies cannot treat them, but they may refer them to a clinic that accepts uninsured children or try to help them get insurance.

“Principals tell me that parents are more connected to the school [through these programs] because they see the needs of the kids,” said Bloom. “They tend to do better academically, their attendance tends to be better [and] if there is a crisis situation and that kid is in treatment in the school, you can handle it right there and then.”

Still, even when services may be available some parents find it hard to navigate the system. Mother of three Yvette Strachan, 44, never encountered such an accessible mental health program when she tried to find a compatible school for her middle son Shane. Instead she fought with the city for years to find a suitable school. Shane, who is now 20-years-old, was first diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) by New York University’s Child Study Center in the 6th grade. As Shane got older, his parents combed through the school system to identify the best program for their son. While Strachan had Shane in outside therapy, she knew he needed a nurturing school environment that would find ways to help him learn at his pace.

Strachan searched the school systems in Brooklyn and Queens—public, catholic, and private—and Shane’s role was the guinea pig. She looked for individualized teaching that could address her son’s specific needs. One of Shane’s teachers, for example, gave Shane oral tests due to his inability to focus on written tests. He did well in this one-on-one setting; however, one teacher was not enough to help Shane succeed in school when other teachers expected him to finish his work like everyone else. By the time he reached ninth grade he had attended thirteen schools.

“They have specialized schools for everything—why couldn’t they create a specialized school for kids who have ADHD or mild mental disorder where they can address the issue before they reach a high school stage?” said Strachan.

The problem with placing Shane in the specialized schools available was that he wasn’t bad enough, she was told. Although he couldn’t sit still and he couldn’t finish assignments because of an inability to focus, he wasn’t hitting his teachers or breaking windows. He still tested well, even though he rarely finished his schoolwork.  For him to obtain placements in a behavioral or residential therapeutic school, he would need to get in more trouble. And he eventually did.

Shane was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a ninth grader, and soon after he spiraled out of control. He refused to go to school and got in trouble with the law and at 18 was arrested for robbery and sent to Rikers Island where he is still an inmate.

“They diagnose our kids with ADD or ADHD so they get put on medication, or they just get written off, or they get put in special education classes and all of that is the first step toward juvenile detention centers, prison and the grave,” charged Williams, the author.

According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an organization that runs much of the mental health initiatives and campaigns across the nation “schools with low minority enrollments supported services for all children more frequently than schools with high minority enrollments.”

“I think it’s the district that you live in and I think it’s the color of your skin,” said Strachan. “I had a teacher who told me ‘maybe if you lived in an area where the property taxes were higher and you were paying more in taxes then maybe you would get a better outcome’.” Although troubled by the teacher’s comments, Strachan admittedly also agreed. After her fight for Shane she has vowed never to put another of her children in public school.

Meanwhile for Ratliff it might be public school that saves her because that is where she has finally started some much needed counseling. Through her therapy she continues to learn new ways to funnel her anger. She has also found she likes talking to her counselor. Her only regret is that her schools did not offer her therapy earlier.

“I wish I had it [when I was younger] because it would have stopped a lot of stuff. I got into fights a lot,” she admitted. “I got into fights all my life.”