In observance of Mental Health Awareness Month, The Washington Informer will highlight some of the grassroots players on the frontlines against the silent epidemic that, for several years, has rampantly swallowed District homes and communities while shaming its victims.
The first of this two-part series features the millennial trio responsible for Behind the Facade Clothiers, a fashion line launched in 2015 as part of an effort to destigmatize mental illness and provide District youth with alternatives to the increasingly popular, but destructive behaviors of concern to parents, community leaders, and elected officials.
“Fashion and music have always been a heavy influence, and young people gravitate to what’s hot,” said Andre Mckissic, local creative and COO/co-founder of Behind the Facade Clothiers. “But it wasn’t teaching us anything significant, just greed.”
In 2016, he, Andrew Jenkins and Aziyrah the Poet expanded the brand, creating material that creatively addresses mental trauma through fashion shows and community forums.
During Memorial Day weekend, Behind the Facade will honor Donnetta Wilson, the mother of slain 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson, and other local mothers during an event touted as Mothers Uniting through Mental Health.
On the following Monday, a group of mothers who attended the ceremony will walk through Wards 7 and 8, doling out green bags replete with mental health resources, essential oils, and hygiene products to the homeless.
Jenkins and Mckissic described the event as a means of changing young people’s lives through the empowerment of their mothers, in a manner similar to what they’ve attempted to do with local creatives and influencers.
“It’s necessary to to dedicate this to have programming dedicated to teaching young people coping skills,” Mckissic said. “Mental health stigma comes from people’s insecurity and how others belittle them for being different. We want to educate others so they don’t go down that road.”
The focus on youth mental illness and its manifestations — depression, suicide and seemingly unruly behaviors — has increased amid criticism that District students don’t have access to resources to address their trauma.
In the aftermath of 12-year-old Stormiyah Denson-Jackson’s suicide at SEED Public Charter School last year, her family revealed that she had been bullied. An email unearthed amid a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against SEED revealed that Public Charter School Board Executive Director Scott Pearson made light of Stormiyah’s death and the Youth Suicide Prevention Act, passed three years ago to help prevent student suicides.
Last month, public and charter school students from the Black Swan Academy lobbied the D.C. Council Committee on Education for the expansion of in-school mental health services, a tenet of their Black Youth Agenda. A protest on the grounds of Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Northeast followed their visit to the Wilson Building.
Across the nation, elected officials expressed a desire to help embattled youth. In the days leading up to Mental Health Awareness Month, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) hosted a a Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health during which CBC Chair Karen Bass (D-N.J.) described the rising suicide rate among children between the ages of 5 and 12 as an overlooked national emergency.
For Andrew Jenkins, Behind the Facade Clothier CEO/founder and a mental health professional, disregard for people facing mental illness affects entire families, particularly those in which children provide care for their parents.
“The people I see are overlooked and played with, and others don’t have patience for them,” said Jenkins, a psychiatric counselor of more than 10 years who said he entered the profession to help his mother along her mental health journey.
“This profession helped me have a backbone when dealing with my patients, and my mother,” Jenkins said. “I know what’s right for her and I know how to maneuver her so I’m not her yes man. This is bigger than fashion; we have mental health hostels and apps in mind but the funds are lacking.”
Jenkins, Mckissic and Aziyrah the Poet have decades of the combined experience on the local fashion and spoken word circuit. Shortly after launching Behind the Facade Clothiers, Mckissic and Jenkins met Aziyrah the Poet during a gathering at Halftime Sports Bar on H Street in Northeast. She has since served as the group’s mouthpiece, connecting their work with women and other marginalized groups affected by mental illness.
“We could be influencing any other way, but we’re giving children the opportunity to know they can be cool in their suffering,” Aziyrah said as she revealed her own bout with depression. “Mental health has to be iterated from the beginning. You can’t complain about certain problems if you don’t take a stand. Our goal is to save our future by educating the present.”