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Youth in juvenile detention address mental health challenges in New Orleans

Now off the streets and behind bars – this group of young people are working towards rehabilitation.

NEW ORLEANS — Behind the walls of the New Orleans Juvenile Detention Center are voices trying desperately to be heard.

“I was living life fast; I was living life because I was running from emotions,” a teen at the New Orleans Juvenile Detention Center said.

Emotions these teens say got them caught up in the juvenile justice system.

“It’s ok to have emotions. You don’t need to use drugs to run from your emotions. It's normal to cry. It's normal for males to just scream. It's ok, whoever told ya’ll that that’s not man enough for you to cry, don’t believe them,” another teen at the center told us.

These are some of the tough lessons the young men and women enrolled in the Travis Hill School have had to learn.

“My situation was real hard, and yeah, it took for me to have a sit-down, but this sit-down changed my life. I look at life in a whole different lens, and the streets are not it,” a youth in juvenile detention said.

Now off the streets and behind bars, this group of young people are working towards rehabilitation.

“We understand how it is to feel alone, depressed, stressed, and things like that. And our parents go through these things every day,” a teen said.

They say their parents and their peers have, at some point or another dealt with mental illness, an issue they say is sparking violence and unrest in their communities.

“Our parents suffer with their mental health. Our community experiences and just life experiences, like we know how it is to deal with mental health,” another teen at the center said.

They used that knowledge to help them brainstorm a solution.

“We want to tackle the problems that adults face before it spreads to the children,” a teen said.

They call themselves the voices behind the wall, and through a nationwide competition called the Aspen Challenge, these teens created a comprehensive plan to address mental health.

“Most of our difficulties and problems and things like that is because parents are not communicating to their children, and it’s just a lack of the ability to know what’s going on in the community and in their households,” a teen who participated in the completion said.

They named their idea "Ladders to Success" it addresses topics like financial literacy, therapy, grief, and trauma.

“We as incarcerated youth are behind these walls, but we feel like since the community looks at us as whatever they label us as, all these stereotypes. We know who we truly are behind these walls, and we can step up and voice how we really feel,” a teen said.

The teens won the nationwide challenge with their idea.

“That was a happiness that I hadn’t felt in a long time like you could feel the happiness in the room,” a teen said. 

School principal Shanell Dowling says the win highlights just how capable these young people are.

“The journey was a process, and it required them to think, and it required that they reflect on their own personal and lived experiences. But with their tenacity and with their grit and with their hustle, they can do anything, Dowling said. I hope that the community hears our cries of what is going on. I hope the community sees us for who we actually are and not what our situation portrays us to be.”

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