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Breaking the Stigma: Children and Mental Health -- Harlem teens take action, bring plan to lawmakers

Breaking The Stigma: Children and mental health
Breaking The Stigma: Children and mental health 03:25

NEW YORK -- There is a mental health crisis among children. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists reports city public schools need more than 200 more mental health providers to meet the needs of students.

That's why CBS2 is launching a series of reports called Breaking the Stigma: Children and Mental Health.

You'll hear from students, parents, and school officials finding solutions to address the growing need.

In Monday's report, we learn about a group of teens in Harlem who have taken matters into their own hands, bringing an action plan straight to lawmakers.

READ MOREMental health experts offer advice on how to find help for children, teens

At The Brotherhood Sister Sol nonprofit, young leaders learn to develop their voices. The BroSis Liberation Program guides interested teens in policymaking and activism, sparking ideas for societal shifts in Isabel Fernandez.

"It's wanting to make a change. It's not wanting to destroy anything. We just want to fix what was built wrong," Fernandez said.

Joined by Justin Butler, Dakarai Lindsay and a few friends from other youth groups, the Save Our Schools campaign took them to City Hall and the state capital to advocate for more mental health care funding last year.

Their demands were denied.

"It's very frustrating because it's like we know the problem. Why can't we address it?" Fernandez said.

"If you really want to break it down and say, how are we going to help these schools? How are we going to help support these students? And then the teacher and parents are saying, like, 'Oh, we need to enforce more police officers. We need to see what they're doing every five seconds.' No. We need to come to the person and be like, 'What's wrong?' Sit down with them. Have a talk. They're still human at the end of the day. These people are just going through a lot," Lindsay said.

Federal data shows more than 70% of public schools saw an increase in students seeking mental health support during the pandemic, and yet, 88% of public schools admitted they were not properly staffed to address the needs.

"When you hear those kind of numbers, that's eye opening. We saw that on the ground. We saw that COVID had really broken something, and so we knew that we needed to do something," said Khary Lazarre-White, co-founder of Brotherhood Sister Sol.

FLASHBACK"More prescriptions than in last 22 years": Pediatricians treating record number of children for mental health problems

Manhattan is among few areas that exceed the need for school counselors, but students say those staff members aren't distributed evenly on the upper end of the island.

"What we have now is guidance counselors and college counselors and some schools don't have that, and then sometimes a guidance counselor is considered a social worker," Lindsay said.

Lindsay serves as a student mediator to help counsel her peers and fill the gap.

"The stress load, the workload, it's a lot, so having that person to be there and say, 'I got you. I'm here to support you.' That goes a long way," Butler said.

It's a lesson in politics and persistence. The students have now adapted their plan and ready to try again with a more targeted approach, focusing on tangible goals like wellness centers inside select schools that need it most.

"Have a space to debrief about how we're doing. Like, simple little things that you wouldn't think would actually make your day different or even affect your mental health different. But it actually would. And it's like a sense of community, a sense of love, a sense of realness," Fernandez said.

"It's more convenient that way, because it's like right downstairs. It's right there," Butler said.

"It's like a mini BroSis in the school?" CBS2 asked.

"Yeah! Right!" they said in unison.

"Adults need to listen to young people, and also need to really think about systems of power and how young people are empowered to make decisions about their own lives, especially when they're the most directly impacted," said Marsha Jean Charles, Brotherhood Sister Sol director of organizing.

FLASHBACKMedical experts, families sound alarm over children's mental health crisis, made worse by pandemic

As the students stomp out the stigma surrounding mental health care, they hope this time their stories bring forth support.

This report is a part of a series, Breaking the Stigma: Children and Mental Health. In the coming weeks, you'll see more stories about how children are coping with everything from meditation to dance therapy. We'll also hear from parents who have found ways to help children while grieving the loss of their own.

And if you know someone struggling, there's help available. Call 9-8-8 for the suicide and crisis lifeline. Someone will be there to answer your call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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