DENVER, Co. — "Come see the world through my eyes. I see beauty in every situation. I see beauty in me, each broken piece still radiates."
In Denver’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, Adriel Long reads the words of a poem by 16-year-old Nicki called 'Blessings'.
"If you look just deep enough, you'll see. I'm simply amazing. I am amazing. I will repeat this religiously until I believe it," Long read out loud.
For her, they are words that resonate deeply and fuel the work she does.
"I read this and I'm humbled and I'm re-energized and I'm angry at the same time, but I think anger is a secondary emotion. It's just painful, but it's human and it's real and it's honest," said Long.
Long is the board president of Art From Ashes, a nonprofit that empowers marginalized youth through their own words.
"We use creative expression to foster connection as well as hope to lead them to transformation, into health and happiness," she said.
It’s not art therapy, but it offers a much-needed safe space for expression and affirmation. Participants get a prompt and three minutes to write whatever comes out – unabridged, unwavering.
"If you need to cuss, you can cuss. If you need to scream or cry, you can do all of those things. We affirm you in that."
Because of this, Long and other staff get a window into the raw, sometimes heartbreaking, mental states, of youth, especially Black girls and boys
"It's a loud cry. It’s a loud cry for help and a loud cry for how our system and how our communities are really failing this next generation of leaders," said Long.
Earlier this month, a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry showed that suicide rates of Black children and teens continue to steadily rise. While the highest numbers were among Black boys, over the course of 14 years, Black girls increased at twice the amount – 6.6% year over year. Around 40% of the girls were ages 12 to 14.
Lauren Carson is the executive director and founder of Black Girls Smile, an organization focusing on Black female mental health awareness. She says that there are two main factors behind these numbers when it comes to Black girls, The first is adultification, as in Black girls being treated as if they were adults.
"They not always understand what's going on, why they are being treated differently, feeling like they had a lot of pressure at very young ages," explained Carson.
The second reason is violence and trauma.
"Seeing things like racial trauma, gender trauma, these are things that impact our mental health and well-being, and can definitely lead to warning signs and risk factors associated with suicidal behavior," she said.
Though it cannot happen overnight, to reverse the statistics, Carson says there needs to be a conscious effort from adults who work with Black children – teachers, school administrators, coaches, youth leaders, mentors –to understand and recognize the warning signs and symptoms of mental health difficulties.
"Quite often you'll have young Black women who are said to have an attitude or to be angry, or to have adverse relationships with adults; but in all actuality, they may have other things that are going on, but we focused on these ones, specific behaviors and don't really dig or create space to find out what additional things may be going on with that young person," said Carson.
Art From Ashes is one organization creating those necessary spaces, but it’s not the only one. Long hopes that every Black youth knows they, too, can find that space to feel heard, affirmed and loved.
"There are communities, and there are folks out there that are looking for them and wanting to give them that space and just to hold on, because it does get better, but just hold on," she said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741.
Lauren Carson also encourages parents or loved ones of Black girls to reach out to Black Girls Smile to be connected to resources and to learn about resources in your area. Carson suggests creating a list of resources before someone is ever in crisis so they can get help as soon as possible.