Enduring a global health crisis, political unrest, racial injustices, and environmental destruction, on top of growing up and trying to figure out who you are and where you belong in the world, is overwhelming; to put it lightly. Teenagers across the country struggle everyday with mental health issues and familial stresses that can take a major toll on their emotional and physical well-beings. Many schools have begun providing mental health services within their districts that allow kids to have an outlet to express their feelings, while also receiving guidance from social workers on how to better their futures.
The actual term for these establishments/services is “school-based youth service programs”, however, they’re more commonly referred to as “teen centers”. These centers are viewed as safe spaces for kids to go to as a means of escaping the harsher realities of either their at-home life, or in-school life. They’re mainly found in high school and middle school environments, as these are the formative school years that can cause kids to become overwhelmed with real world exposure.
However, now that all teen centers are for the most part shut down, or struggling to remain afloat due to the Covid-19 pandemic, parents and school administrators are worried about the kids that were benefiting from these services and have been struggling at-home ever since.
Tamika (Mika) Murray is one of the many concerned individuals who’s been using her time in quarantine to publish a book that can help parents and kids navigate through coping with a variety of different mental health struggles based on her long career in social work. Throughout this career Mika has helped out children of all ages, but her work in teen centers has been the most rewarding.
“A Teen Center is there to bridge the gap and ensure adolescence has a healthy foundation during high school. Excelling in courses but also making healthy choices inside and outside of school, the centers were there to lend a helping hand and do everything that we could for these kids, free of charge.” Through her book, Crying, Learning, and Laughing: Why Students Visit the Teen Center, Mika channeled her personal experiences working out of these centers and used them to create her own sort of guide for young readers at home to use when they find themselves alone and struggling; especially those who no longer have access to the teen centers that have been helping them pre-pandemic.
“Educating yourself as a parent, educator, social worker, or anyone surrounded by teenagers is vital, and now that kids are isolated more than ever, it’s up to the adults at home to take the reigns.”
Mika graduated from Stockton University with a Bachelor of Arts in Literature as well as a Bachelor of Science in Social Work. I recently had the opportunity to speak with her about her journey working as a writer, English Professor, and social worker, and how all three of those experiences helped her to write a book meant to guide teens and parents with their internalized struggles.
She began her teaching career substituting for a small low income school right outside of Atlantic City. As her time as a substitute progressed, she recalled her empathetic nature constantly taking over whenever she would speak to her students. She remembered always wanting to do more for the kids who she saw struggling, and as time went on, she realized that meant changing her career path as well. In 2010, she went back to school to get her Bachelors in Social Work and eventually applied to work for Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP); a position she got after beating out 10,000 other applicants. Eventually, Mika would leave the DCPP to begin working in Teen Centers in New Jersey.
Throughout her career in social work, she noticed that the teenagers she worked with always seemed the most resilient and hopeful. This has been the most evident within the past nine months of 2020 alone, especially with the existence of social media constantly updating our nation’s youths with new coronavirus death rates, videos of racial injustices, impossibly high beauty standards, and more.
However, she’s always found that regardless of their situation, teenagers always have a sense of positivity when it comes to discussing the future; even now, when the future seems bleak for most. In more recent years, she especially noticed that being in this modern age of social media is inspiring teenagers to want to make a difference so that they can have a brighter future for themselves.
Mika resides in New Jersey specifically, where she told me that recently the Department of Children and Families has decided to stop funding in-school programs, which is devastating for teenagers who can’t afford to go to outside centers for help. This is also why Mika was so passionate about publishing her book. In fact, one of the biggest discrepancies that she discusses within the book is the major lack of funding that these school-based teen centers have always struggled with.
Mika believes that mental health services are essential for all human beings, so it was exciting last year when Jersey approved of a policy to make mental health education mandatory within their curriculum. However, due to the pandemic, these new policies have barely been put into play. Mika believes the easiest solution would be to place a teen center in every high school in America.
“All kids, and adults for that matter, could benefit from some sort of mental health service, and beyond that, the life tools these teen centers provide is extremely important, so I tried to incorporate them into the book as much as possible.”
The book itself includes a lot of success stories from her experiences of helping guide teens down a positive path and watching them grow into mature young adults with a solid life plan. However, Mika also wanted to place a certain emphasis on the stories that weren’t as joyous. She remembers multiple occasions where her and her fellow workers would reach out to an individual and just not hear anything back because they simply weren’t ready to talk about what they were experiencing.
“That was the realism behind it, I wanted to include the kids that weren’t ready, and that happens, it happens with adults too. I wanted the book to be a healthy balance of what worked, and what could be improved upon.” By including the more somber stories from her career, Mika attempted to show readers that even though a situation may have not worked out as planned, there are other options for those situations that can also help. So when individuals at home are reading about a teenager like them, who wasn’t able to fully take advantage of all a teen center has to offer, they know that there is no one single solution to mental health, but there is always a space for them to express what they’re feeling.
Mika claims that writing the book, getting it finished and re-reading it made all those emotional journeys worth it. “It made me so happy, because I could see how much I cared for these kids in the writing.” It reminded her of all the other social workers she worked alongside with every year and saw their passion and strength, even when presented with the most difficult cases. It was inspiring to know that America’s youth has so many adults out there working to provide them with a solid outlet for their stresses.
Mika hopes that when people read her book they have some gratitude for those working in the field; teachers, case managers, mental health clinicians who are all trying to help kids through crisis’, etc. because it’s not easy. She also wants to raise awareness for the existence of these school-based youth service programs, as many people aren’t even aware of them and the fact that they receive little to no funding. Unless a child has gone to a school with a teen center, according to Mika, people don’t generally know they exist, despite them being around since the 1980’s. This is one of the reasons they’re often overlooked when it comes to passing annual school budgets.
Especially now with the pandemic, parents need to pay attention to their kids and their emotional well-beings, which she hopes her book can help with. “I tried my best to give tips for parents and lay out how teen centers look-out for certain warning signs in kids and how they can also do that at-home.”
Crying, Learning, and Laughing: Why Students Visit the Teen Center is available now on Amazon. If you want to sign the change.org petition to help keep school-based youth service programs funded in New Jersey, click here.
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