North Star Journey

How mental health programs focused on cultural identity are helping Minnesota students

Three people are posing for a portrait.
From right to left, Benita Amedee, Abebayehu Gebeyehu and Maria Rios pose for a portrait on Monday at the Wilder Foundation in St. Paul, home of the Kofi Project, a culturally-specific, school-based mental health program for African American youth. 
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Abe Gebeyehu, a school-based mental health practitioner, started noticing things were not going well for his students in 2020.

When Minnesota schools closed their doors to in-person learning, the time they spent on computers and other screens skyrrocketed. Their interactions with friends and teachers plummeted. They began, in the online meetings he had with them, describing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“I have seen, those emotional distress, emotional struggles in the students' life, because that's the impact of the COVID. That isolation, that separation from the real, from the natural socialization — it's really impacting their emotional stability,” he said.

Gebeyehu is a school-based mental-health practitioner. In 2021 he began working with the Wilder Foundation’s Kofi Project, a culturally-specific, school-based mental health program for African American youth. 

A statewide survey conducted at the beginning of 2022 found that nearly a third of Minnesota students are struggling with long-term mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. That’s more than at any other time in the history of the survey, and it’s an issue state and national health officials describe as a crisis. 

But there’s something Gebeyehu sees in the Black students he counsels that is less widespread among Minnesota students. 

“What they're facing is, you know, especially African American boys ... they do have this fear of their future … they have feelings of like, ‘Does anyone accept me in my future? Do I have a space in my future?’”

A person poses for a portrait
Abebayehu Gebeyehu is a school-based mental-health practitioner. In 2021 he began working with the Wilder Foundation’s Kofi Project, a culturally-specific, school-based mental health program for African American youth. 
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

‘We want them to know who they are, as African American’

Gebeyehu, who is originally from Ethiopia and is Black says he is uniquely positioned to address the challenges his students face. He does all the typical work anyone else in his position might do: he meets with students in his offices at two different St. Paul public school buildings, talks them through difficulties, teaches them about their emotions and helps them with regulation and coping skills.

But he’s also intentional about teaching them about the rich heritage of African American leaders in their community, and introducing them to historical figures like Martin Luther King, Barack Obama and others.  

“We want them to know who they are, as African Americans to become more productive and more equipped and empowered citizens of their communities,” Gebeyehu said. 

He introduces culturally specific books to his students, meets their families, and arranges for group trips to introduce his kids to African American artists, chefs and community leaders. He’s specific about asking them about their plans and hopes for the future. 

For Benita Amedee, who manages the Wilder Foundations School Based Mental Health work, the cultural component of Gebeyehu’s work with the Kofi Program is key. 

“The idea is for the kids to understand, for the families to understand that you can heal through cultural knowledge; that culture does heal,” she said. “Our cultures all have this in common — this ability to heal the pain that these cultures have gone through.”

In addition to the African-American-focused Kofi program, there’s also a program centered on Hmong culture, Latino culture, Somali and Karen culture. Providers in these programs say not every student has been affected in the same way by the events of the last several years. Nor does every student manifest their struggles in identical ways. 

A person poses for a portrait
"Culture does heal," Benita Amedee said.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

‘With Hmong students, the issues are invisible’

Mai Lor Moua is a mental health practitioner and clinical supervisor who’s part of Hlub Zoo - Wilder’s Hmong-focused program. She’s not based at a particular school and spends much of her time commuting to different locations to work primarily with Hmong students. A big part of her work is helping teachers understand when a student might be struggling. 

“With Asian students or Hmong students, we tell [teachers] there are these externalized behaviors, but there’s also those on the other continuum — students who are struggling quietly are often called invisible. They’re withdrawn, so they don’t engage with large groups or small groups. They’re often really quiet, some have attendance issues or they’re not engaging with their peers,” Moua said.  

During the pandemic, Moua saw Hmong families struggle to communicate with schools and access online classes because of language barriers. She also saw tight-knit communities flounder because of the required isolation.

And the students she worked with became increasingly withdrawn and anxious. They struggled to engage with their school work, maintain a daily routine and attend classes.  

“Pre-pandemic it was already really hard for parents to connect with the school because of the language barrier or transportation or they’re busy providing for the family. And with the pandemic that has increased — that loss of connection,” Moua said. “There was a lot of isolation.”

Now that students are back in in-person classes, Moua says she’s focused on building one-on-one relationships with students, and encouraging them to turn to their community for help.

In individual meetings with families, she’s also careful in how she speaks about mental health issues. There can be a stigma in Hmong communities around mental health struggles.

“A lot of times we want to keep things in the family and deal with it in the immediate family and the elders,” Moua said. “But once the parents and the guardians understand what is mental health, what is the thing that their child is going through and understand that … having mental health issues doesn’t mean that there’s something bad about you or something wrong with you — you’re going through something that’s really hard.  Once we build that trust, families can open up with us.” 

For Moua, addressing her students’ needs includes drawing in their families and encouraging students to connect with their wider community, friends, extended family and build relationships with school staff.

‘They tried to bury us but they didn’t know that we were seeds’

Maria Rios, who’s based at Academia Cesar Chavez, a dual-language charter school in St. Paul, founded Sembrando to support Latino students. 

“I had this idea and this vision of like, how do we serve the Latino community … it's really about providing that mental health support to the community in their language, whether that's Spanish or English,” said Rios, “And also in a culturally appropriate way, taking into consideration the values, the customs, the history, how we work as a community, and how do we do that work together.”

A person poses for a portrait
Maria Rios teaches her students how to handle stress, takes them to Mercado Central and tells them about the history and community of Westside and Lake Street. She wants them to learn who their community is.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Rios was not as connected to Minnesota’s Latino community as she wanted to be when she was growing up in Minnesota, after immigrating here with her family from Mexico. And she’s also seen the outsized difficulties her students and families have faced during COVID.

Many had extra barriers because of their immigration status that made it difficult to get the food and support they needed. So for her, the success of her Sembrando program is about giving her students the community and support they need to overcome difficulties. 

“That's my dream, my goal for them,” said Rios. “And again, that comes from a personal part. But for them to just feel confident in who they are and to shine. I think that's the biggest thing. That's really beautiful.”

When Rios teaches her students how to handle stress, or takes them to Mercado Central or tells them about the history and community of Westside and Lake Street, she wants them to learn who their community is, who they are.

Sembrando, said Rios, means ‘to grow’ or ‘to plant.’ And it is derived from the saying “they tried to bury us, but they didn’t know that we were seeds.”

“It’s this idea of how do we plant seeds in our students to have that cultural identity and that confidence?” she said “We're just planting seeds. That’s what the program is about.”

Three people are posing for a portrait.
From right to left, Benita Amedee, Abebayehu Gebeyehu and Maria Rios.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News
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