Experts Discuss Teen Trauma and the Scarcity of Mental Health Resources in the Virgin Islands

Tarik McMillan, certified clinical trauma specialist, licensed professional counselor, and co-own of Greater Changes, joined the Disability Rights forum on youth trauma. (Screenshot from Zoom meeting)

After presentations about adolescent mental health issues, hosted by the Disability Rights Center Thursday, mental health experts discussed prevention and coping and identified a few local resources.

Trauma is the response people have to what has happened to them and the response can be passed down through generations, according to Tarik McMillan, certified clinical trauma specialist, licensed professional counselor and co-own of Greater Changes in Frederiksted. Responses to trauma can be fight, flight or freeze, to which he added “fawning” – when the victim works to appease the one who inflicted the wound.

McMillan pointed out that Caribbean people have dealt with trauma since the precolonial period and have carried the stigma of mental health since.

He said statistics from 2017 indicate that 22 percent of middle schoolers have thought about suicide, and eight percent have tried to kill themselves. Seventeen percent of high school students have thought about taking their own lives and eight percent attempted, he said.

“Coping with life after trauma really is terrible,” he said.

Brandy Brooks, prevention coordinator at Westcare’s The Village, presented information Thursday about youth mental health. (Screenshot from Zoom meeting)

Brandy Brookes, prevention coordinator at Westcare’s The Village said the response to a “terrible event” may be different for each individual – traumatic for some and less so for others.

There are programs at The Village for 13-24-year-olds who are dealing with substance abuse, which is a multi-layered problem. First, the patients must deal with their mental health crisis and the stigma, she said.

Brooks said the first treatment includes cutting down and cutting back on the substance. School programs that teach life skills, as well as family and community programs, can help at-risk youth. Other ways to combat drug use include peer-led programs, media campaigns and brief interventions, said Brookes. Meditation, music and exercise can also distract youth with healthy alternatives.

The bottom line to success is “empowerment” and “uplifting the spirit,” Brookes and McMillan agreed.

The Village’s programs include residential treatment for adults and outpatient treatment for adults and youth. There are also occasional community outreach programs.

McMillan said treatment is available at the Frederiksted office and through telehealth. Project Horizon offers 10 one-hour sessions a week for 15 teens at a time. A family program and teen intervention are also available. Greater Changes is planning to offer teens group therapy on St. Croix.

The mental health professionals said people can be referred to their programs through the Departments of Health and Human Services and the Housing Authority. And they can contact either provider directly.

“There are not enough mental health providers,” McMillan said. “We are way behind when it comes to mental health.”