‘Detroit needs help’: District invests $34 million in mental health support for students, parents, and staff

Five women give themselves a hug while sitting in a circle, four in chairs and one on the ground, during a meditation session.
The Detroit Public Schools Community District isn’t just trying to address the mental health needs of its students and staff. The district is also helping families cope with the effects of the pandemic. (Lori Higgins / Chalkbeat)
The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

Six women were seated in a circle in a trendy coffee shop in the Rosedale neighborhood in Detroit, their eyes closed while they centered their thoughts on their breath — and not their everyday challenges.

“I am everything I need,” they silently told themselves as the soothing music that accompanied their meditation competed with the coffee shop music and the churn of drinks being made. “I am what I’ve been searching for.”

Like many school districts across the nation, the Detroit Public Schools Community District is investing a significant amount of its COVID relief funds ($34 million out of $1.3 billion) to address the mental health needs of students, staff, and families.

Parents are learning ways to help their kids and address their own mental health needs. The district is working with its insurance providers so staff can take classes on topics such as emotional wellness, resilience, and well-being. The money has also allowed the district to give students what they sorely need: more one-on-one and small group support.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said earlier this school year that the biggest challenge to providing that level of support has been not having “the people or the resources.”

The COVID relief funding, he said, “is going to allow us to do this this year, next year, and maybe a third year.”

The funding is also allowing the district to provide mental health initiatives like the one at the coffee shop: A women’s support group that has met a handful of times. The investment is a recognition that everyone — students, staff, parents — is struggling after a year and a half of the pandemic. A men’s group has also formed.

“Detroit needs help,” said Kaitlynn Blaylock, one of the parents who came to the support group on Oct. 27. “There’s too much suffering.”

The federal money means the district’s Family and Community Engagement office can hold meetings like the coffee shop gathering, covering the cost of a drink and pastry for each participant, and hiring Erin Julianna Ellison, who provides meditation and mindfulness services. 

Ellison, her voice as soothing as the music she was playing, guided the women through a nearly hour-long meditation exercise. She had them imagine themselves in front of a lake, with a box, pen, and paper in their hand. They were to write down something that no longer serves them, so they could put it in the box and release it in the lake. Later, she had them imagine writing on a piece of paper “one thing that you love and appreciate most about you.”

“Brag on yourself,” she told them.

In the Detroit district, the Family and Community Engagement officer built its catalog of parent academy offerings around mental health. There have been classes on mental health awareness, as well as trauma-informed parenting. A mental health guide gives parents tips and tools for self-care and advice for talking to their children.

Detroit was hit hard by the pandemic in 2020 and continues to suffer. Many students, parents, and staff lost a loved one to COVID. Many also have struggled with the challenges of pandemic learning. Shortly before the session began, one parent expressed concern that her own stress was affecting her son’s ability to learn.

“As a community we have all been through something,” said Sharlonda Buckman, the assistant superintendent who oversees family and community engagement. “We’re still going through stuff and still navigating and still we rise, as Maya Angelou would say.”

Buckman, who was part of the group session, said part of that rise “has to be acknowledging that we all have had losses that have been insurmountable … and we find a way to keep going.

“Part of recovery has to be some intentional work in spaces like this, so we can be there for our kids,” she said.

At the end of the meditation, Ellison asked the group to share what they had released into that imaginary lake. 

“I put anger and resentment in the box,” Blaylock said. “I just let it go.”

Throughout the meditation, Ellison repeated one phrase over and over: “We can’t always control the things around us, but we can control our breath.” She told them that during a typical day, people have 50,000 to 80,000 thoughts. 

“That can be exhausting,” she said. So the meditation was designed to take their thoughts from a 10 to a 2.

At one point, she had them place their right hand over their left chest, and their left hand over their right chest. Then, she told them to squeeze themselves and “give ourselves a hug.”

Parents who attended said they got a lot out of the meditation.

“You leave here with more than you came with,” said parent Amber Hunt.

Chalkbeat Detroit reporter Ethan Bakuli contributed to this report.

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