Voices of Youth: Struggling students wonder: Who can I talk to?

Editor's Note: This story was reported by Elizabeth Ramos and the accompanying artwork and photos were created by Joyce Ekumbaki, Ireen Kibezi, Kimberly Nuñez, Eliana Ramos, and Joyce Ekumbaki as part of the Fall 2023 Kalamazoo Voices of Youth Program. The program is a collaboration between Southwest Michigan Second Wave and KYD Network in partnership with the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo, funded by the Stryker Johnston Foundation. The Voices of Youth Program is led by Earlene McMichael. VOY Mentors were Al Jones (writing), Casey Grooten (art), and Taylor Scamehorn (art). Some of the names have been changed to protect privacy.

What is it like to wake up every day and be worried about going to school?
What’s it like to get to school and seem like you’re different from everybody else – but in a bad way? What is it like to feel as if you have nobody to talk to? Or people who won’t judge you?
“It’s very tiring,” Melissa Miller (not her real name) says of the strife she has faced in school.

The Kalamazoo County student whose name has been changed to protect her privacy recalls a bad argument she had two years ago while in sixth grade. Two of her friends began dating one another. They became a couple and broke away from her.
“I was like, ‘Can we still hang out?’ And they were like, ‘No. no. This is a two-person thing now,’” Melissa says. “And I was like, ‘Oh!’ And then we kind of went back and forth over texts and everything and it was overly dramatic.”
Although that situation started with her and her two friends, she says, other mutual friends “kind of followed them. …Because I kind of broke off from them (the two friends), everyone else kind of broke off with me, too.”
How did that make her feel?
“You’re constantly trying to seem happy and you’re trying to keep up your grades. And it’s just very overwhelming,” Melissa says. “Then you get to lunch. You’re sitting pretty much alone at the table and you’re awkwardly hearing everyone else’s conversation. But you can’t say anything to them.”
Why not?
“You just don’t think that they’re going to like you,” she says.
Shae Goretzka says a lot of young people probably feel that they’re different from everybody else, that they are unliked, or that they have no one to talk to.
“A lot of our kids I think probably feel that way even if they’re not able to articulate that to us,” says Goretzka, who is a licensed master social worker and supervisor of the Case Management Department at Family & Children Services in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “It’s pretty apparent that a lot of them struggle to make friends. They don’t have a core circle of good friends and support, (or) they’re maybe seeking that in the wrong places.”
Help is available

Family & Children Services tries to guide youth to make good choices, figure out what those choices are, and help them see how they can get where they want to be.
“Here, in Kalamazoo County, we have some really great resources for kids and youth that are struggling,” says Goretzka. “We have our Mobile Crisis Response Program. It’s for any youth in Kalamazoo County who is experiencing any type of mental health crisis, any thoughts of self-harm, suicidal ideation, or homicidal thoughts, as well. Or just any type of crisis that they may be experiencing. They can reach out to our mobile crisis unit.”
Depending on the situation, the program provides someone to try to address the situation, she says. Working through Integrated Services of Kalamazoo formerly Kalamazoo Community Mental Health, someone is on call at (269) 373-6000 every hour of the day and is expected to respond within 15 minutes. That can be by phone, by virtual online contact, or in person. The mobile crisis response is also utilized by area schools.
Jeffery Boggan, principal of Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts in Kalamazoo, says there is help for students who feel isolated, who are not connecting with others to make friends, and who are simply having a difficult time emotionally or psychologically. 

He says the first person they may want to reach out to is their school counselor. They may also connect with a school social worker who is at any of the Kalamazoo Public Schools two to three days a week, or a clinical social worker who is at the schools once a week to provide extra support to anyone in need.
He says the schools have been trying to increase students’ access to help “because what we’re finding is that a lot of our students need emotional and mental support. … You’ll see more and more of those supports in schools across the country just because of how things have continued to change in our society.”
As students were learning online from their homes in 2020 and 2021, he says the schools blocked out time once a week to do what it called “social/emotional learning.” It taught students various ways to manage themselves throughout the day. 

Artwork by Eliana Ramos, Joyce Ekumbaki, and Kimberly Nunez.Teachers took students through a process to help them socialize better and problem-solve. Boggan would like to see the schools get back to doing that. Maple Street is a middle school that has 872 students.
“Students at a very young age may need someone to connect with, someone to talk to,” Boggan says. “Sometimes they’re feeling lonely. Sometimes the student is being picked on or bullied and they need some support.”

Goretzka says a lot of schools, including those in Portage, also have access to OK2Say, a student safety program. It invites them to use an assigned text number, a website, or a phone number to anonymously report anything that concerns them, such as a peer who is struggling. Students can text 652729, call 855-565-2729, or send an email to OK2SAY2mi.gov.
Goretzka says Family & Children Services has also been partnering with local police to do ride-alongs with officers and follow-ups to help young people who have psychological crises.
‘Not created to be in isolation’

At Family & Children Services, Goretzka supervises a staff of six counselors who each have a caseload of about 30 people at any one time. She estimated that about half of all of them are preschool to high-school-aged young people. She says that is more than it was when she became a case manager more than two years ago. She estimated that only about one-third of her therapists’ clients were school-age youngsters then.
Young people are usually referred to Family & Children Services by others in Kalamazoo’s community mental health system. Of their really young clients, she says, “We’re seeing youth coming in at 3-, 4-, 5-years-old with oppositional defiant disorder or intermittent explosive disorders.”

She says a lot are ADHD, and some suffer from depression and anxiety.
She says a lot of it is a result of traumas they have suffered early in life, whether that is some kind of pre-natal trauma, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or external trauma, such as physical abuse, verbal abuse, witnessing domestic violence or living in a home without lights, water or heat. It could also be the result of not having enough food (food insecurity), homelessness, dealing with a parent’s mental illness, or a multitude of other reasons.
Mental health issues may be worsened by poor diet, lack of sleep, and internalizing issues instead of trying to verbalize what’s going on, she says.
Therapists often work with children who have been removed from their biological parents and are in foster care or have been adopted “and so, even though they may be in safe, loving homes now, the effects of trauma are playing out years later,” she says.

Therapists try to help young people and their families learn what their stressors are, and help them learn to cope by using healthy coping mechanisms.

“When we came back to school in person, what it validated for me was that we are not created to be in isolation,” says Principal Jeffery Boggan about coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, which involved remote learning during parts of the 2020 and 2021 school year
“After we came back together after being apart for a little over a year, you would have thought folks forgot how to treat one another,” he says. “So, we literally had to go back to the basics in terms of expectations (to remind students): ‘This is how you treat people. This is how you talk to your peers. This is how you talk to grown folks.’”
He says it has been tough on young people socially and academically, sometimes creating gaps in their development in those areas. He says, “We’re still working to close those gaps.”
Goretzka says she is happy that this summer Integrated Services of Kalamazoo opened the new Behavioral Health Urgent Care & Access Center, at 440 W. Kalamazoo Ave. in downtown Kalamazoo. It is a 24-hour place where anyone experiencing a mental health or substance-use crisis can go to be evaluated by trained staff people and referred to other services.
She says, “I think the schools are doing as much as they can while trying to keep education as the primary focus.” But specialists say teens are facing as many psychological problems as ever. The problems include anxiety, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity, and eating disorders.

Changing world

Goretzka says the world has changed drastically over the last few years. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a lot of young children were in the deepest part of their growth and development. But they were forced to stay isolated at home. And because most people were wearing masks, they didn’t get to see other people smile.
“I wonder what that may have done to the development of our younger kiddos?” Goretzka says. “Those were the first experiences that they had in that part of their development. …How that’s going to play out as they grow and learn?”

She says they also saw a lot of social media effects — social media being one of the only ways a lot of young people could connect for more than two years.
“With underdeveloped minds, they will see things on Snapchat or Instagram and take it at face value and make up their minds based on what they are seeing on social media,” she says. Adults know that is not a perfect or true picture of what is happening.
Goretzka praises young people for reaching out for help and for being open to receiving help. She says sometimes it can be therapeutic to have someone just sit with a person and be a listener – no judgments, and without necessarily having a response. “But sit with them in those dark moments.”

Melissa Miller, the student who shared her story of friendship struggles in middle school, says she ultimately talked to her school counselor after another girl saw her with her head down on a table. The counseling and friendship with that other girl, helped her get past the rejection and bad feelings.
Goretzka says, “Often, with mental health issues there is an imbalance somewhere in the brain and it’s not just going to go away on its own. It’s going to take work. It’s going to take potential psychotherapy, maybe some medication, ongoing services, and support. 

It’s rarely going to be solved if you just hang onto it all by yourself alone. And a lot of kids don’t know how to express their needs. They’re scared. They don’t know what’s going on or they don’t trust enough people to share."
Melissa, who is now an eighth-grade student, makes this suggestion for a young person going through a rough time.
“I would definitely recommend trying the counselors,” she says. “I think that, if worse comes to worst, they’re at least giving you other resources to use generally, even if talking to them one on one isn’t 100 percent working.”

Elizabeth Ramos

Elizabeth Ramos
is an eighth-grader at Maple Street Magnet School of the Arts in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Elizabeth likes to play sports, draw, hang out with friends, and read.

Ireen Kibezi
Ireen Kibezi
is an 11-year-old who attends Milwood Middle as a 6th grader. Ireen loves playing basketball. “Middle school is okay, but sometimes there's drama and things that don't need to be said," says Ireen.

Artist Statement: "It doesn't matter who you are… just be yourself, and express yourself in whatever way you need to. Students need to have time to get away from teachers, like during recess. Students need outlets to find folks they share interests with, like out-of-school programs. There was a person in my class who was talking about pronouns and wanted to use they them pronouns. The teacher said the student could not use their preferred pronouns. I saw the person become sad for being disregarded."

Kimberly Nuñez

Kimberly Nuñez
is 14 years old and goes to Maple Street Middle School. She worked on this project with Eliana Ramos and Joyce Ekumbaki to spread awareness of middle school mental health issues and counseling.

Joyce Ekumbaki

Joyce Ekumbaki
is 13 years old and goes to Milwood Middle School. She worked with Eliana Ramos and Kimberly Nuñez. They used photography to show the importance of middle school kids getting access to mental health services.

Eliana Ramos

Eliana Ramos
is 13 years old and goes to Maple Street Magnet School. For this project, she worked with Kimberly Nuñez and Joyce Ekumbaki to represent the topic of middle school kids getting help with counseling. "We tried to take multiple photos of kids having problems and getting help to solve them where they talk it out," says Eliana.
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