Report on the Mental Health of DC’s Youth

 “People are just not reaching us where we are at.  We want to be reached.”– Washington, D.C. focus group youth participant.

In the following audio podcast, radio journalist Netfa Freeman interviews Dr. Melissa Neal about her report Mindful of the Consequences: Improving the Mental Health for DC’s Youth Benefits the District as well as Dr. Joy DeGruy on her book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Netfa’s reports can be heard regularly on WPFW’s Voices With Vision, Tuesday mornings at 11:00 AM. [haiku url=”″ title=”Experts Report on Mental Health Issues Faced by DC’s Youth”]

By Melissa Neal, DrPH  The mental well-being of our youth is crucial to achieving progress and prosperity in our communities. In Washington, DC, youth face particular challenges as disparities in resources and risks vary drastically in just a matter of miles. I wrote JPI’s report, Mindful of the Consequences: Improving the Mental Health for DC’s Youth Benefits the District, to show that current prevention and treatment services do not match the level of need and many youth are at risk for contact with the justice system due to untreated mental problems. To illustrate this, I mapped where arrested youth are coming from: predominately areas of low income and high rates of risk factors that impact mental well-being.

The general attitude toward youth living in these areas (both with and without juvenile justice involvement) has been fear and blame. However, as I prepared to begin writing this report, I came across a few quotes gathered from a focus group with youth on the various challenges that come with growing up in D.C. These youth commented on what they needed…

“If they gave different programs to fit the criteria to why you were locked up, services that help you specifically, maybe even invest in psychologists.”
“Guidance and someone there they can look up to that is on the right path.
Support other than tutoring, someone they can talk to sometimes if they have a problem.”

I was struck by the fact that these kids know they are not getting the help they need. They are discerning of what their problems are and what they need to begin recovery. What lingered in my mind was “…maybe even invest in psychologists.” Sadness pervades their words: they can be helped but it seems to be too much trouble. These youth are not demanding what they need – they seem to hardly believe they deserve it. But, they do. They deserve an investment in psychologists. They deserve a system that understands the challenges they’ve faced. They deserve a community that cares and will provide the support they need to recover and thrive. Mental health problems are treatable. Whatever the challenges youth have faced that have resulted in poor mental health, they can still be helped into becoming citizens of pride and productivity.

Some D.C. leaders will criticize this report citing the millions of dollars being spent already on mental health – as if that should be enough. My challenge to D.C. leaders is to admit that what is being done is not enough. Too many children are suffering from poor mental health while not receiving the attention needed. Too many youth are being misunderstood when their cry for help looks like aggression. Far too many are being penalized and channeled into a lifetime of involvement with the justice system just because it was too expensive to…invest in psychologists.

Melissa Neal, DrPH, is Senior Research Associate for JPI.


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