Wu, Elected Officials Tour Zumix, Discuss Youth Mental Health

Last Wednesday, Zumix hosted Mayor Michelle Wu and a group of local city and state officials for a tour of the neighborhood’s popular music and performing arts nonprofit.

During the tour the group of dignitaries saw first hand how Zumix programs, and programs like it that immerse youth in music and the arts, has a positive impact on their mental health and overall well being.

Wu has committed city resources to begin addressing youth mental health in the wake of the pandemic that saw many children isolated from many peers and social settings for nearly two years. Wu also created the Mayor’s Office of Behavioral Health that is headed by Dr. Kevin Simon, who served as Assistant in Psychiatry at Boston Children’s Hospital and has extensive experience in dealing with pediatric and adolescent mental health.

“We are in a moment of tremendous stress coming out of the pandemic, coming from changes in our economy and struggles with our housing crisis, with transportation reliability,” said Wu. “We see it concentrated among our young people as well. Mental health is an underlying epidemic of the COVID 19 pandemic and that’s why in Boston, we are so lucky and fortunate to have brought on Dr. Kevin Simon. Dr. Simone’s work focuses on the mental health of young people in particular, and we know that our young people have faced enormous disruptions in every aspect of their lives.”

Wu said to address the deepening need for mental health support for youth here in Boston the city has already worked to place a social worker in every Boston Public Schools to increase the support services for social and emotional health directly through the school system.

“But we need to do a lot more in collaboration with the Boston Public Health Commission and local partners,” said Wu. “There are incredible examples all across our city of work and services that’s being built that directly support and strengthen the mental health of our young people. Organizations like Zumix recognize the arts as a powerful vehicle for self expression, community building and strengthening social and emotional well being. Music has been shown to decrease depression, to boost self esteem, and reduce the symptoms of PTSD in young people. We heard stories of the alums who have gone on to be superstars vocalists, or working in our state house in representing their communities, or having taken careers as arts expression therapists, or leading arts education efforts statewide. It changes lives when we truly integrate mental health, community building, arts and culture and every other possible support that we can give to our young people.”

Mayor Wu has prioritized efforts to improve equitable access to mental and behavioral health care by proposing several investments in this work in her FY23 budget. Dr. Simon will collaborate with community partners and City agencies and departments. He will drive the development of ambitious, innovative prevention and response models for mental health and substance use that promote whole wellness. These efforts will strive to address historical systemic racial inequities through a comprehensive and coordinated citywide response in Boston.

Dr, Simon added that it is particularly important for youth, as well as adults, to have safe spaces to come and be themselves and express themselves.

“I think one of the key things that can be missed is investment into spaces that are not necessarily “therapeutic” (settings) like a doctor’s office,” said Simon. “I think a place like Zumix allows families to feel comfortable knowing that they can go to work and their children are safe. We’re going to try and  think creatively with the City Council and state partners in reference to the opportunities that exist already like Zumix and how we can get more spaces like Zumix or expand Zumix so that way they can help serve more students or more youth.  I think Zumix is a prime example of what exists and how we need to be doing more for youth. We need to be doing more for our families so that we can have a decrease in the number of individuals experiencing anxiety or experiencing depression.”

Rep. Adrian Madaro, Chair of the Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse thanked his colleagues in government, the city councilors, and Mayor Wu for having the foresight to create an Office of Behavioral Health for the city.

“This comes at a time when behavioral health issues, which were bad before the pandemic, have only worsened since the pandemic,” said Madaro. “I think it’s appropriate that we’re here at a youth services organization in East Boston because one of the focal points of our Mental Health reform legislation was youth behavioral health and school based behavioral health. In addition to redoubling our efforts to uplift and support community based services we are also uplifting amazing youth programming like Zumix, which has for decades offered safe places for young people to come, make friends, be themselves, have positive adult role models, and of course, learn music. We all know that the arts can be unbelievably healing and  incredibly therapeutic for one’s mental health and one’s overall health and well being. So this program really is a gem for our community because it really grounds young people here and allows them to have a positive outlet through the arts. That’s certainly in line with what we’re trying to do with the mental health reforms–focusing on new behavioral health, on school based health, and of course on community based programs, like Zumix.”

Zumix student Angelica Munoz said Zumix said when she came to Zumix as a young girl she was shy, had terrible stage fright but in a few short years she has become a positive, outgoing and confident teen.

““I feel like Zumix is just such an empowering organization that can change your life or someone else’s life which is just something very inspirational,” she said.

Zumix Co-Founder and Executive Director Madeleine Steczynski said she was very excited to see the intersection of so many people really trying to do what’s right for the community on many levels and collaborating across various sectors. Steczynski said while Zumix is not a mental health organization–improving one’s self, gaining skills and confidence, and becoming a holistic member of the Eastie community has always been embedded in the work Zumix does.

“It’s so interesting that we didn’t have to mention music and the arts, but it’s embedded in everything that we do,” she said. “We don’t sit around talking about mental health on a regular basis. We do projects together, we do creative artistic things, we write songs, we perform together, we do videos together, we do radio together, we go out in the community and and you know, provide services for folks in the community. In doing that we learn about each other, we learn skills, we become assets to our neighbors, to our friends, and we become family.”

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