This article is part of a series about mental health in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.
Juggling school work, relationships with peers, after-school jobs, or extracurriculars can be overwhelming enough for high school students, both physically and mentally. When you add in not speaking the same language as many of the other students in your class, or being new to the country, students face a slew of other challenges that can negatively affect academic performance and mental health.
When Ypsilanti Community High School
(YCHS) student Nancy* came to the United States from Guatemala eight months ago, a language barrier between herself and her peers was only one of many struggles she faced. But when she found out about the Latinx Teen Empowerment Group at YCHS, she was curious and excited to get to know other students who shared her experiences.
"I wanted to learn how it was to form relationships in this country with a group of people," says Nancy, translated from Spanish. "We had some beautiful conversations with each other."
The Latinx Mental Health Collaborative (LMHC) at the Washtenaw County Health Department
in partnership with YCHS piloted the Spanish- and English-speaking group to help immigrant students, as well as students from families of mixed immigration status, build lasting relationships with one another. The group also teaches skills to help students navigate anxiety, depression, and systems that affect Latinx immigrant families' lives.
In addition to partners at YCHS, Ann Arbor Latinx community health organization Buenos Vecinos
, the University of Michigan (U-M) School of Social Work
, and Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Latinx mental health collective Amplify Colectivo
were all involved in facilitating the group.
U-M School of Social Work Assistant Professor Fernanda Cross.
U-M School of Social Work Assistant Professor Fernanda Cross says the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted mental health needs in all Washtenaw County youth. But the immigrant student population that the LMHC caters to has a unique set of challenges on top of isolation and other pandemic-related barriers.
"These youth have had to navigate additional challenges, hardship, and marginalization because of their immigration experiences and coming to the US," Cross says in an email interview. "We have been intentional about leading the groups in Spanish with Latinx facilitators who have shared lived experiences."
After the success of the initial pilot group at the end of the 2021-2022 academic year, a second pilot just finished meeting in June at YCHS. Each meeting saw an average of 12 students, who were able to participate in group therapy sessions focusing on "racial healing and empowering, restorative storytelling," according to Cross. Students also played games and participated in sports like soccer, and food was available for them at each meeting.
The group also aided students in building trust not only with one another, but with group facilitators from U-M and Buenos Vecinos. Buenos Vecinos Youth Programming Coordinator Diana Bernal helped to coordinate and maintain communication with students throughout the six-week program. She also communicated with students’ families to get consent for students to participate.
Buenos Vecinos Youth Programming Coordinator Diana Bernal.
"The first day we held the group, a few students found out about the group about an hour before it started, and they wanted to join," Bernal says. "We’re definitely learning that it needs to keep going. The students really benefit from this."
Nancy is one of several students Bernal has worked with. Bernal has shared stories of being an immigrant herself, coming to Ypsilanti with her family when she was eight years old and attending YCHS as a teenager.
"I was eager to be more involved in my own community. It just started with me having talks with students, and then it developed into something more," Bernal says. "Many more Latinx families are coming to Ypsi because they feel safer. They know or have heard of somebody in the community who has been able to get access to help and resources."
One of the resources the health department is focusing on is access to health insurance. Many Latinx students and their families would not qualify for publicly funded health insurance due to costs or immigration status. In order to expand access to health care, the health department offers the Washtenaw Health Plan
(WHP) for low-income families to access quality care they may otherwise be unable to receive.
Washtenaw Health Plan Program Manager Kelly Stupple.
WHP Program Manager Kelly Stupple says WHP was approached as part of the creation of the LMHC and the youth empowerment group. She says WHP has helped cover costs of running the group, and also helped some students and their families get health coverage.
"We were able to get them enrolled in the WHP and get them access to services that they didn’t have before," Stupple says. "It’s been a wonderful opportunity for us to meet our goals and mission as an organization."
Both Cross and Stupple say a major focus for the group has been cultural responsiveness and competency.
"Many of these students come from countries where it is less common to seek mental health counseling in a formal way," Stupple says. "This is a way to introduce them to the concept of social and emotional health and wellbeing in a group setting that is safe, administered in their own language, and in the school that they’re currently attending."
YCHS Latinx Teen Empowerment Group facilitator Priscilla Cortez.
The two pilot programs showed Cross and Stupple that there's high demand for the group as it continues into the 2023-2024 academic year.
"We intend to offer more than one group eventually," Cross says. "It would be great if we could expand to other high schools in the future, but for now we will continue to partner with YCHS and the administration there, whose support has been instrumental in both pilots."
Asked if Nancy would change anything about the group, she pauses to think.
"That’s a tough question," she says. "I don’t think so. I would change nothing."
For more information on the Washtenaw Health Plan, visit the Washtenaw County Health Department’s website
or WHP’s website
*Last name withheld for privacy.
Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
All photos by Doug Coombe.