Opening panel discussion at Young Minds Matter 2023: five panelists on stage, seated in front of the Young Minds Matter banner

Opening panel at YMM: Youth Voices for Change

This blog post was guest authored by Dana Fields-Johnson, a director at Prevention Institute, a grant partner at the Hogg Foundation and coordinator of the Communities of Care initiative.                                                   

In early November, thought leaders, practitioners, community advocates, and youth gathered for the 2023 Young Minds Matter Conference in Houston. Young Minds Matter is a call to action, an opportunity to contribute to the collective healing of communities, and a chance to be part of a movement shaping the future of mental health. Under the theme of ‘Transforming Our Communities Collectively,’ participants discussed promising solutions to mental health with a focus on creating resilient communities for youth. Co-hosted by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and Prevention Institute, Young Minds Matter is representative of a movement that prioritizes a comprehensive approach to mental well-being and that considers the impact of the community environment and structural determinants such as racism, bias, and discrimination.

Since the onset of the pandemic, much has been documented about its negative impacts on the mental health of youth and young adults. Isolation, social disconnection, gaps in academic achievement and learning, housing displacement, and rising levels of violence in communities are among the ongoing challenges and societal pressures that have contributed to rising rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety for youth and young adults. However, Young Minds Matter was a unique space for youth and adults to discuss solutions to these and other barriers to mental well-being in a way that centered those most impacted.

“The onus of combatting structural oppression and community violence does not belong to Black youth (or historically oppressed people) as they did not create or sustain these systems… What we can do is educate and challenge the ways youth internalize oppression and brainstorm ways to challenge these systems.” — Robyn Douglas, Youth Rising Lab at Texas A&M University

Speaking Truthfully About the Problems

Startling statistics presented by researchers from Texas A&M University’s Youth Rising Lab, a research lab that studies traumatic stress and mental health in Black youth and families, revealed that over 90 percent of youth have witnessed violence, and 50-70 percent have directly experienced its harsh realities. The researchers also presented solutions centering on self-care across five domains—social, spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental—and critical consciousness, a framework for understanding how youth can resist and heal from exposure to social, economic, and cultural stressors through understanding social and structural oppression.

Presenters Ar’Sheill Monsanto, author and public policy advocate, and Jaison Oliver, educator and organizer at BLMHTX/ImagiNoir Collective, spoke about the consequences of police presence in schools, especially as it relates to the passing of Texas House Bill 3. Requiring the presence of at least one armed security officer on every school campus as a response to school shootings, legislative actions like House Bill 3 create a nexus that fails to protect Black and brown students from punitive disciplinary actions and instead feed into the carceral system. Our schools have come to look more like prisons, only compounding issues around mental health and well-being for young people.

Getting Creative About the Solutions

As we confront these urgent issues, the need for healing becomes clear. In addition to the need for addressing challenging systemic and structural inequalities, including the impact of police presence on young lives, the power of storytelling was also central to this year’s conference. With presenters like the Race Equity Leadership and Research Collective and The Mahogany Project, Young Minds Matter created a healing-centered space for young people and their communities—a space where young voices rose, critical consciousness bloomed, and the roots of violence were addressed with compassion and understanding.

This carefully curated event encapsulated promises of hope for youth, families, and communities in Houston. With a spotlight on the pressing issues facing the state’s youth, the conference was a dynamic exploration of solutions, strategies, and stories that empowered and uplifted those advocating for change. For example, the City of Houston worked with young people to release a Youth Mental Health Guide in October that could very well be a blueprint for how other cities address mental health. Not your typical black and white 15-page report, it connects art and activism to well-being and features thoughtful visuals from young people reflecting on their experiences with mental health.

“We need to be in community where young people are leading. We have to be in a relationship where youth are leading so [adults] can continue learning.” — Verniss McFarland, The Mahogany Project  

Young Minds Matter was also an opportunity to showcase the efforts of 10 collaboratives, funded by the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, working across greater Houston with the Communities of Care initiative to improve the mental health of youth and their families by transforming the environments where people live, learn, work, and play. Using Prevention Institute’s Tool for Health and Resilience in Vulnerable Environments or THRIVE, these collaboratives prioritize engaging youth and residents as change agents in their neighborhoods, advocating for more equitable parks, quality education, disruption of the school-to-prison pipeline, safety improvements, and affordable, quality childcare.  The conference featured the efforts of youth advocates and residents who are leading these efforts and included real-life examples of community healing, connection, and justice—like Dr. Hina Azam of Ibn Sina Foundation, Shanice Blair of The Future is Us, and youth advocates Erika Ngo and Alexander Lopez of My Connect Community Collaborative in Gulfton. Blair, Ngo, and Lopez were also represented in recent Into the Fold podcasts produced by the Hogg Foundation, Young Minds Matter: Real Queens and Transforming Young Minds Collectively.

The insight, vulnerability, and stories shared at Young Minds Matter ignited conversations that will echo beyond that one day. There was a distinct camaraderie, passion, and connection throughout the conference that focused on the strengths of communities that are often cited solely for their challenges. There was an acknowledgement that those most impacted by structural inequities are often plagued by burnout and stress and that we must care for the caretakers by ensuring safe spaces for self-expression, cultural healing practices, collective healing, and self-care.

Young Minds Matter was a showcase of innovative efforts in Houston and an opportunity to amplify the voices of those who stand for healing, justice, and connection. The groundbreaking discussions and practical approaches to mental health presented at the 2023 Young Minds Matter are a roadmap toward a healthier, more liberated future.

Learn more about how the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and Prevention Institute support mental health and community well-being in Houston and access content from Young Minds Matter 2023.

Special thanks to LySaundra Campbell, Communications Consultant and founder of Social Soundtrack, for her contributions to this blogpost.


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