A simple but impactful video submission on mental health was awarded first place in a nationwide competition, but the group of high school students behind it is remaining anonymous, known only as “The Voices Behind The Walls.”
The students who created the video are incarcerated and study at Travis Hill School inside New Orleans’ juvenile detention center. According to its website, the public school serves about 40 students ranging from 13 to 18 years old. Because the cases of students who entered the competition have not been heard yet, they’ve been instructed not to talk about their situations. Three students, accused of committing serious crimes and facing decades in prison if convicted, were able to speak to CBS News without revealing their identities.
The students said their experience gives them a unique perspective on mental health.
“They label us crazy because they don’t even know us,” one student said. “They don’t know us. They don’t understand that I’m really a good child. I’ve been through some things. I did some things I regret, but at the end of the day, I’m a good child.”
“I had a lot of hatred in my heart and I always felt, like, you know, I wasn’t enough,” said another student. “So, I just tried to … find that wound and that love somewhere else. And I thought I found it in the streets.”
The video was submitted to the Aspen Challenge, which solicits solutions on domestic issues from high schoolers in select cities. Unlike the 18 other groups they competed against, the students from Travis Hill School didn’t have access to technology, which one student said was a “challenge.” However, coming up with the actual plan to address mental health challenges was “easy,” they said. Their suggestion was to host biweekly family counseling sessions that could bring an understanding of each other’s grief and trauma.
“The parents will learn skills,” said one student. “They will also get the understanding of what trauma is, what grief is, like stress, anxiety.”
The students couldn’t make it to their ceremony where they took home first place, but Byron Goodwin, the director of Travis Hill Schools, said he was able to tell them about the impact they had.
“My first words to the kids was, like, ‘Y’all are being heard now, not just here but all over the United States. Y’all have just spoken for every kid that’s incarcerated or detained in this United States,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin said that the competition gave the students a valuable opportunity.
“They’ve been told so long that they can’t be educated, they can’t be learned, they’ll never be nothing,” he said.
The students said that entering the challenge did give them an important lesson and show that they could be someone even outside the detention center’s walls.
“Doing this, it just gave me a voice, and I expressed it,” one student said. “I want to achieve greatness.”
“A lot of people wouldn’t think that we could do something like this, but we actually can,” added another. “And this is not even the best thing we could do. We can do greater than that.”