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Next Gen Mental Health Advocates Blossom in Brownsville

The 12-week program, funded by participatory budgetary funds, taught young adults about signs, symptoms and diagnoses and how to cope with mental health issues to transform themselves into mental health advocates.
Young adults aged 16-24 participated in a 12-week mental health program in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

What at first was an intimate group of three students learning about ways to improve their mental health, quickly turned into a cohort of 19 people transforming themselves into mental health advocates for their community in Brownsville. 

For the past several months, young adults aged 16 to 24 gathered twice a week for two hours to learn how to care for themselves, their mental health and their peers at the B-Well program, a collaboration between Brownsville Community Justice Center (BCJC), alongside Transformation Counseling Services (TCS) and Pitkin Ave BID.

The program was as a result of a $50,000 grant from the city Civic Engagement Commission’s (CEC) Participatory Budgeting Process

Mallory Thatch, senior programming manager at BCJC, said every year local residents vote on that what initiatives the community wants to see in their neighborhoods. This year, residents voted to add a mental health outreach program.

Program facilitators Pia Johnson, LMSW and owner of TCS, and Ayanna McNeil, CPLC, said their focus was to allow students to think about their mental health on both a personal and community level.

“We gave them stats about mental health and Brownsville [including] the economic index stack stats of Brownsville so they could make correlations with how residents live their day-to-day lives and how it could impact their mental health,” McNeil told BK Reader. 

Pia Johnson and Ayanna McNeil of Transformation Counseling Services holding a t-shirt from 12-week mental health program. Photo: Supplied/Ayanna McNeil

“We talked about advocacy and what it means to be an advocate for yourself and what it means to be an advocate for others —how we have to use trauma-informed languages and trauma-informed practices.”  

The students were very receptive to the programming, McNeil said. Initially, it began with only three students, but it quickly expanded to a large group of 19, as participants started to bring their friends and loved ones so they too could learn.     

Facilitators taught the group how to recite affirmations, meditate, do yoga techniques and practice other healthy self-coping skills. 

In addition, the group also conducted a survey to better community demographics, access to mental health services and usage of available services. 

The results indicated that the people surveyed primarily identified as under 24 years of age (67%), women (65%) African American (40%) and Brownsville residents (58%). When asked about how often they think about their mental health 58% thought about it daily.

However, 61% of participants had not sought out professional help at the time the survey was conducted.  Additionally, 63% of people added that they are unaware of how to access mental health resources. 

“Knowing about Brownsville, we know that economically it's an area where people are struggling,” explained Johnson. “There's such a thing as the working poor — people who are uninsured or underinsured who don't have finances to pay out of pocket, and their insurance might not offer mental health coverage.” 

Not knowing where to begin is what prevents people from seeking out help, explained Johnson and McNeil. These types of outreach programs are exactly what underrepresented neighborhoods need, they said.

“Thanks to this program we have 19 mental health advocates here in Brownsville," Thatch explained. 

“We would love to have this program again to continue to raise awareness and create a large network of mental health advocates throughout the community.” 

Brianna Robles

About the Author: Brianna Robles

Brianna Robles is a Brooklyn, NY based freelance writer and journalist specializing in sharing stories about mental health and spectacular women.
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