Dr. Jamie Freeny is the Director for the Center of Behavior Health at Mental Health America of Greater Houston

Spring break is finally here!

This is the time when students can get a much-needed break away from the hectic responsibilities of school.

Two years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a historic shutdown of schools nationwide and kept students out of the classrooms well into 2021. Prolonged periods of no in-person instruction coupled with the rising rates of anxiety and depression exacerbated the challenges that already plague many public schools. 

The pandemic especially took a heavy toll on Black people [and people of color] who were disproportionately impacted due to achievement gaps, racial disparities in learning, lack of social, emotional support of their schools. 

Spring Break will give Black students and their families the time to relax and mentally decompress from such an abrupt and traumatic experience. 

Dr. Jamie Freeny is the Director for the Center of Behavior Health at Mental Health America of Greater Houston spoke with the Defender about ways Black parents and students can maximize their quality of life when class isn’t in session.

Defender: Now more than ever schools need to rethink their approach to mental health in our communities- What should be considered so that Black children and their experiences can be heard safely and authentically

One thing that schools can do is to increase the number of Black indigenous and people of color educators on their campuses. Social connectedness is a predictor of academic achievement, academic performance, and that happens when there is someone that they trust. And usually, that happens when there’s somebody in that school that looks like you, or at least when there’s someone in the school that builds a rapport with you and believes in you and children are very observant and intuitive. They can tell when you’re being genuine or when you’re just kind of trying to dismiss them or move on.

Another thing schools can do is understand that while education is the goal, mental health is a catalyst or a necessity to that academic achievement. So, if your students aren’t mentally well, they’re not paying attention in class or being disruptive, their needs may be overlooked. Maybe because teachers don’t know how to respond to that behavior or to that language. When you have someone in the school that’s familiar with your culture then you feel as though you belong.

But until we have schools that are willing to either increase the number of Black educators or administrators and not through service resource officers. So not increasing police, but increasing counselors, increasing mental health professionals that are there to support the academic growth. They can step in when a student is exhibiting emotional disturbance. The third thing is professional development. Not only can schools train their teachers and their counselors to recognize signs and symptoms of mental illness and to respond that way. But to go beyond that and look at the cultural differences of how stress manifests in Black students and what that looks like and understand that because this black student is mumbling under their breath, or says something sarcastic that is not a personal attack on you. It’s how they are maintaining their sense of safety. It’s what they know to do. It’s what they either see in their home, or what makes them feel most comfortable, or like they’re securing themselves, or they’re standing up for themselves at the moment. 

The fourth thing is changing discipline policy. Oftentimes Black children are seen as disruptive. We can see when it comes to discipline, that Black girls are disproportionately represented in-school suspension, out of school suspension, Black boys are highly likely compared to their white counterparts to be punished for the same discipline, but their punishment is harsher. They are more likely to be referred to alternative campuses such as DAEP or juvenile justice than their white counterparts. Understanding how unbiased and equitable discipline practices can positively impact the academic achievements of Black students because when we don’t pay attention to the nuances, we are quick to judge them. We’re quick to look at their behavior and punish them. So, we need to stop criminalizing our Black children for having emotions and having feelings.

Defender: This younger generation moves differently when it comes to mental health and self-care versus previous generations. What’s creating this shift?

It’s incredible because it shows the change over time in experiences and values and what works and what we are willing to endure. I think it’s kind of twofold. So that confidence comes from the fact that we come from powerful people. We oftentimes don’t wear it with confidence depending on where we are, especially if we’re the only Black person in the room or only Black person at the table. Think about how our parents and grandparents made decisions and how they were loyal to one job or loyal to a company and that thought processes around providing stability and how they were told this is the trajectory of their lives are supposed to be.

I don’t think that young people growing up in this generation don’t have loyalty or discipline, they are loyal to their mission. They have a purpose. I think resources and access are also what make this generation different. We have the internet. We can access almost anything. We can meet up with like-minded people. I don’t think it’s because the values changed. It’s the way that they manifest and find efficient ways to accomplish their goals. 

Defender: What tips can you give Black parents or students this spring break to help them relax and recharge their emotional and mental health?

The first thing is first is to figure out what works best for you and invest in it. Not necessarily money, but time, energy effort. It’s a good opportunity to understand what [your] stressors are and put a plan in place to help mitigate or reduce the stress response. When the parents are getting stressed and the children are driving you nuts, what can you do at that moment so that you respond and not react?

We have got to break generational curses and generational trauma. There are other options than yelling and screaming and cursing at your children. There are other options than always putting your hands on them. Having a discussion. Having a conversation. One of the things that I tell parents is to listen, validate reassure whenever your child comes to you and they talk about stress hear them out, don’t cut them off. Don’t dismiss them. Don’t correct them. Listen to them. 

The second thing you can do at that moment is validate. If they don’t have the words to express themselves, help them articulate their feelings. 

Lastly, reassure them. Tell them that you love them and that you will always have their back, and that they are enough

Over the spring break, you can start to practice that because there might be times when you’re with your children more often than you’re not. So, if you’re spending time with the family, start thinking about listening, validating, and reassuring during conversations.

Focus on things you can do together, that don’t cost money. You don’t have to go anywhere fancy. It could be taking a 30-minute walk around the neighborhood every evening. You’ll be surprised at what a no screen, no technology, no music conversation can turn into. Also, get plenty of rest and maximize your downtime. 

Laura Onyeneho

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...