One in ten children and adolescents experience mental illness severe enough to cause some level of impairment. Despite having similar rates of mental disorders, ethnic minority groups receive poorer quality mental health services and are less likely than white groups to use available resources. 

In 2004, former high school educator Tomas Alvarez III was experiencing difficulties in reaching his African-American male students, many of whom who were either at risk of dropping out of school or falling into the criminal justice system. Seeking to address this area, he (in collaboration with another teacher) developed a hip-hop curriculum that sought to address the mental health needs of these underserved students. After experiencing success with his students and other public school students throughout the Bay Area, he founded Beats Rhymes and Life in 2010.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Davin Thompson, a Lead Artist with Beats Rhymes and Life. In his role, he partners with mental health clinicians to present their critical health information to ethnically diverse young people in new and engaging ways — information that otherwise might not be available to or utilized by students that need them.   

DB: In the black community, there is a stigma against mental health counseling. Is this something that you and your colleagues experience in the work that you all do? If so, how do you combat this?

DT: Yes, absolutely. I think in a lot of ways that distrust of counseling and therapy is warranted because there are so many agencies and systems that are setup to disassemble the black community. If you just look at history that we have with those agencies, you’ll understand where it comes from. When you add hip-hop, you kind of “de-stigmatize” it — just a little bit. We try to be clear in our sessions that it is therapy that we are doing; the art is important, just as important as the therapy. 

Another aspect of our model is that a lot of time you’ll find that the clinicians aren’t from the neighborhoods or aren’t from the area that come in and do service, let alone listen to hip-hop. So it’s also important that we are interacting directly with the youth but are also training clinicians who are going into these spaces offering perspective on who they are, and how they can be more congruent in interacting with the young folks. 

DB: Can you describe to me what one of your hip-hop therapy sessions look like?

DT: There’s about 22 weeks that we’re with our therapeutic activity group, and it’s built into three modules.

The first module is about hip-hop. How it started. What it looked like in the past, what it looks like now, and what it could be in the future. The function of that is so we can get young folks looking at what it means to tell a story. Here’s hip-hop: hip-hop came up kind of rough, there’s a lot of factors in the community that weren’t so healthy; here’s how the community decided or happened to address those issues, whether it was intentional or not. This is what it looks like now, and if we pay attention to it or if we don’t pay attention to it, this is what it could be in the future.

So that sets it up for the next module which is the self module. They’ve already gone through a few weeks of that trajectory where they are seeing, okay, this is where it's happened with hip-hip, this is where it is now, and this is where it's going. Now we take that idea and apply it to them. So they are saying, this is my history, this is where I am presently — these are some of the trials and tribulations that I’ve been through, and this is where I’d like to go.

The third module is more about, well this is what my community looks like — these are some of the issues that are taking place, therefore affecting me, and here are some things that I’m aware of or not aware. Then we have our showcase, and it’s a great opportunity for these young folks to share their stories with their communities and with their families, their probation officers, with their school counselors and teachers. Just giving them the opportunity to talk about how they’ve been affected. After the showcase there is a coronation session where we just listen to music and reflect on what the 22 weeks has done, and that’s pretty much what it looks like.

DB: In my experience working with schools, I met many educators who cared about the social and emotional needs of their students but lacked the cultural competence to adequately and meaningfully make an impact with those students. How can schools and youth organizations across the country utilize hip-hop and youth culture to address the mental health needs of their students even if their staff may not share the same cultural background? 

DT: A lot of that is in the hiring process, and really looking for folks who understand the culture and carry the culture not specifically because they’re trying to address the youth but because this is just who you are. I think we have to be really strategic and as much as possible look for individuals who are already doing the work and then bring them into an institution to continue to do the work. I think that’s the best way to utilize that. To bring somebody in from the community. There are other organizations that do similar work, like Words Beats and Life. They put together a conference for hip-hop education. They also have an online hip-hop journal with a bunch of other folks who are doing similar work and speaking on different issues. 

It’s also on us as hip-hop educators to really be on point in documenting our work and having the empirical data to prove that this is worthwhile and works inside of schools.

DB: I read about a program of the Beats Rhymes and Life Academy that trains young adults to become helpers, healers, and leaders in their community by implementing your hip-hop therapy model. What can schools and organizations do to increase the number of minority mental health workers?

DT: From my perspective, start them young. Go into some of these college track schools, where kids are learning and have the expectation that they are going to college. Start seeking out the kids that show the aptitude or an interest in middle school or high school and be really active in recruiting them and raising them into the position of being healers. You have to find them young, and be active with them in their growth into that.

This may be a bad comparison, but kind of the way the army recruits, they get at you and tell students all they can offer, what different paths look like. There isn’t an overwhelming number of people of color who are in the mental profession; they’re there, but in terms of them having the credentials we’re far behind, from what I understand.

But the other perspective with that is, I don’t have any degrees but I’ve being doing mental health work for some time now. So it might be just seeking out folks like myself that already are doing the work but aren’t aware that they’re doing the work, and getting them credentialed and pulling them into the fold. I have the experience but I don’t have the certificate. 

I think it would be really wise for these institutions to catch these kids in high school or middle school even and really introduce them to the idea and concept of hip-hop as a healing modality. Secondly, find individuals who are already working in the community and at the very least offer them some clinical training so that they can be of better service to the community.

To find out more about the phenomenal work Beats Rhymes and Life is doing, please visit their website

D’Andre is a college access professional in San Francisco, and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.