The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.
Instead of wasting away hours scrolling on Instagram and TikTok during quarantine in 2021, Alyssa Simone spent her time researching mental health techniques and sharing her knowledge with her peers. Simone was diagnosed with OCD in early 2021 and felt her own mental health declining when her socialization at school was replaced with texts and Zoom calls and her general routine disrupted.
She knew if she was struggling her peers must be, too. In May of that year, Simone and friends founded Child Resilient. The nonprofit started as a way to share Instagram infographics keeping their peers informed on mental health topics, like parenting styles and the effects of microaggressions on children. Eventually, Simone and her team saw the need for teens to have their own self-development community.
Capitalizing on the free time students had last summer when jobs and summer programs were limited due to the Omicron variant, Simone’s group launched Mentalligence, an immersive program making mental health education accessible to teens weekly via Zoom. So far, over 150 NYC students have connected in small groups to learn about and experiment with different therapy techniques.
“Therapy isn’t a one size fits all model,” said the Staten Island Technical High School senior. Simone emphasizes the importance of experimenting with a variety of therapy approaches to see what works best for teens in differing circumstances. Under supervision of three psychologists on the board, Simone and the other leaders introduce teens to cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy, among other styles.
Each workshop includes learning about the history, accepted usage and intended benefits of practicing a certain therapy. Students then break into small cohorts to do an activity led by student mentors, before returning as a group to reflect on experiential takeaways.
For 14-year-old Ovoke Akpude, Mentalligence came at just the right time. When her school, Brooklyn Technical High School, went virtual, she said she was “bored and kind of closed off.” Ovoke socialized on Discord and other social media platforms but the Mentalligence program was where she really felt a sense of connection again. “Mentalligence encourages a new kind of community,” she said. ”Everyone gets to relate on their own level.”
Social isolation, like what many teens experience during the pandemic, can be detrimental to young people, said Dr. June Rousso, a psychologist on the board of Child Resilient. She views this switch to a remote environment as a cause for delay in the development of many teenagers’ identity socially and emotionally.
“When you’re a teenager, you learn from each other, you compare, ‘oh they’re doing that. I like that.’ It’s just sort of a way to help develop your own personal identity,” said Rousso.
Students that are a part of historically underrepresented groups are most negatively impacted by the lack of mental health support from school professionals and a lack of resources. Federal data shows the crisis has been exacerbated in Black and Latino communities especially.
This is the group Mentalligence is aimed for, Simone said. Nearly 85 percent of their participants identify as female or teens of color, most of whom receive no professional support.
The leaders reflect this about those they serve, and that is part of the success, says Nana Opare-Addo, a sophomore at Brooklyn Latin and group leader.
“Mentalligence works so well because we the leaders have endured similar issues and can relate to our participants,” she said.