Ninth-Grade Students Tackle Mental Health Challenges in the Gallery Walk
The Greater Hartford Academy of Arts (GHAA) hosted its first 9th-grade Mental Health Gallery Walk on a frosty morning in mid-November.
GHAA is run by the Capital Region Education Council (CREC). Students are attracted to this magnet high school’s “college-preparatory and pre-professional arts education,“ with offerings in theater, dance, media arts, music, visual arts and creative writing.
Finding the school’s entrance is not easy because the building is hidden from the road behind a giant wall of shrubs on Huyshope Avenue, located steps away from Trinity Health Stadium (formerly Dillion Stadium), home of the Hartford Athletic, Connecticut’s professional soccer team.
GHAA is housed in a one-story red brick building with large multipaned windows. It is part of Coltsville, a national historic park named after Samuel Colt, who invented the automatic revolver and created the first “company town” to house workers at his Colt Armory.
Ms. G. is a combination greeter, host, and adult-in-charge—and the students have fallen in line.
The morning’s activities take place in the cafeteria, a multipurpose space, because the school lacks a dedicated auditorium or gymnasium.
We are met by Gemetta Neal-Goulet, a health and physical education teacher. She is wearing a Nike hoodie in a soft pinkish-orange hue, Pantone’s “Peach Fuzz” color of the year for 2024, long blue shorts, bright orange Nike sneakers and socks below her ankles. To students, she’s Ms. G.
On this day, Ms. G. is a combination greeter, host, and adult-in-charge—and the students have fallen in line. She is in command, with her school ID dangling on a rainbow lanyard around her neck.
With the precision of a drill sergeant at basic training, Ms. G. starts the program. While her presence is felt, her leadership style encourages student involvement so that they can develop critical soft skills.
She explains that groups will walk from table to table for five-minute presentations. Six teams (consisting of two to four people) present their topics: Acute Stress Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Anorexia Nervosa, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Kleptomania and Social Anxiety. The participants walking the galleries evaluate the presentation based on the rubric provided.
The former Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra is today’s keynote speaker. His skin is the lush color people go to the beach to obtain—it radiates health. With his gray hair, dark pinstripe suit and red power tie, he looks like a Fortune 500 company executive ready to announce a merger.
Segarra doesn’t receive the attention he once did as mayor—and he seems to relish this. He is no longer in the meat grinder that is politics. For the past five years, he has been an administrative law judge for the Connecticut Workers’ Compensation Commission in Waterbury.
The cafeteria entrance is decorated with flags from countries around the world, reflecting the diversity of the students—it’s as if one is entering the United Nations in New York City.
The poster boards are folded in three and stand tall on the table tops.
Students mingle in front of their poster boards, preparing for a different type of exam. Juniors and seniors are present to assist—they had their event in late October. Several school administrators and teachers are in attendance.
The poster boards are folded in three and stand tall on the table tops. Each board is decorated with colors, facts, headings and graphs, reflecting each group’s creative abilities and personality—most have QR codes leading to websites.
Rubrics and red pens are plentiful as nervous energy oozing from the students. It’s a fun environment, but the topics are serious.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states that mental illnesses “vary in degree of severity, ranging from mild or moderate to severe.” In the U.S., one in five adults, or 57.8 million people, have mental issues, according to NIMH data.
A few students mention that they have experienced a mental disorder or know someone who has. The environment is supportive as presenters look for reassurance from their poster boards, like a warm smile on a best friend’s face.
The cafeteria is loud because sound waves race like F1 cars on the smooth track-like surfaces, making it seem like hundreds of people are in the room, when in reality, the number is under 70.
Doom and gloom permeate our thoughts as Old Man Winter prepares for his annual appearance. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is appropriate for November in Connecticut, given that weeks ago, the clocks were turned ahead an hour.
SAD is a type of depression directly related to the changing seasons, according to the Mayo Clinic website. Symptoms start in the fall and continue through the winter.
People affected by it have reduced energy and are often moody—like your cellphone constantly on low battery. Popular treatment includes phototherapy (light therapy), psychotherapy, or medication.
Chloe Galvin, a pintsize brunette with a black hoodie and bright orange pants, is a teammate with Jalnier Diaz Perez, wearing his own black hoodie with “Let’s Go New York” on the front. His blond braids and blue beads holding the ends of his hair in place attract attention like a sign on Broadway.
Using their indoor voices, you can barely hear this team. Jalnier’s native language is Spanish. He was born in Puerto Rico, and his voice doesn’t project well in the din, requiring 110 percent concentration just to hear. Lip reading would have helped. But together, they nail the presentation.
Segarra takes a personal interest in this presentation. He, too, was born in Puerto Rico and experienced SAD—it has plagued him throughout his life. His eyes are focused on the presentation as he looks at the poster board for confirmation of what he knows: Connecticut gives him the blues during this time of year.
He is more alert and upbeat during the spring, summer, and early fall. The shorter days in the fall and changing of the time is a “trigger” for him. Segarra says his solution to combat SAD is trips south to Florida and Puerto Rico. Plus, the sun supplies much-needed vitamin D.
After the event ended, I sit down with Jalnier, Anthony Infantas, a student photographer with a shaggy head of hair and eyeglasses, and Ms. G. We are in a room that is a dance studio/multipurpose space, with large mirrors on the wall and a railing at waist height.
The clicking of Anthony’s camera cuts through the air. His shoes appear to be Crocs and are the color of Santa’s red jacket and decorated with multiple charms. He winces, trying his best to be a fly on the wall, documenting it all with his Canon.
I don’t want people dying because everybody deserves to live.
What affected Jalnier the most when learning about SAD was the potential for deep depression. “For me, it’s probably the suicide,” he says. Before researching this topic, he didn’t know that was an outcome.
“I don’t want people dying because everybody deserves to live,” he says in his low voice. “That’s probably what affected me most of our whole project.”
Jalnier compliments Ms. G, who is sitting a few feet from him. He states the project wouldn’t have been possible without her admonishing him to put away his cell phone—the unintended consequence of a technology-addicted society.
His strategy was to talk more about the images on the posterboard than the big words he didn’t know. “I’m going to stick to my comfort zone, and maybe next time try to get out of it more,” he states.
His advice to students: “Have fun and keep your phone in your pocket.”
Jalnier learned that he should try to put himself in other people’s shoes regarding mental disorders. “My family members and friends are the people I really care about, and I don’t want to hurt them in any way. I learned about myself that I want to help as many people as I can.”
He admits that he felt a little nervous presenting. “But then I realized that I should be excited instead of nervous because God gave me the ability to show people what I can do under pressure.”
Confidently, in his low voice, he mentions that he was used to being in pressure situations as an athlete. His sports interests are boxing, basketball, baseball, track, and swimming.
He liked that the presentation gave him the “opportunity to realize how much of a leader I can be and how I would react under pressure.”
When he arrived on the mainland from Puerto Rico, he stayed with his grandmother in Florida for a year, then moved to Boston for a year and came to Hartford circa 2016.
“For me,” he states with love, “home is Puerto Rico. I love Puerto Rico. That’s my island.”
Ms. G started the gallery program a year and a half ago after witnessing what her kids went through during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a mother to three: girl and boy twins, age 15, sophomores and a 17-year-old girl, a high-school senior.
“I thought it was important to understand kids better, like when they shut down, and trying to give kids opportunities to speak their truth.”
She gives the students credit for building the “house” and adding the extras, using a metaphor to refer to the gallery walk. She helped build the foundation like a general contractor. “I always want to see kids be successful and to take this knowledge and information and apply it outside of school.”
For her, feedback is essential. “To me, that’s the best part,” referencing the support and feedback that students get from staff and students inside the school. On this day, she is proud. Smiling, she says, “That makes my day.”
Ultimately, she wants her students not to judge people and to learn to walk in other people’s shoes—a lesson we can heed.
Before her teaching career, Ms. G spent 15 years managing fitness clubs in East Hartford and Enfield. She switched careers because she wanted to make kids successful and felt she couldn’t do that in a gym.
She started working with youth at the Hartford Juvenile Detention Center, which helped her to understand young people’s thought processes.
Now in her 17th year of teaching, she tries to connect with people outside the school. “If I can get the students to see different people and say, ‘wow, I didn’t know that person existed…’” Her voice quiets as if contemplating the magnitude of it all.
Helping the students to have experiences outside the classroom is a driving force that keeps her making connections.
Ms. G has an event planned for January 2024, which will not be in the school’s cafeteria. “I would like to make this big time! I just want to make this like a community thing for the community as much as I can,” she says.
I would like to make this big time!
Still in the Game
As if she doesn’t have enough going on, Ms. G has been a basketball referee for 26 years, including refereeing in the Greater Hartford Pro-Am for 20-plus years.
“Officiating has made me a stronger female,” she states. From a global perspective, she wants to help young girls and women understand that there is something after basketball for them.
She calls herself an “average” D3 player at Eastern Connecticut State University. “I saw officiating as a way to be a role model for young girls and women.” She attended Norwich Technical High School, which didn’t have women’s basketball back then, playing coy not to reveal her age. She played for two years at Mitchell College in New London.
She is proud to have been a player, coach, and referee. She has officiated girl’s high-school games, NCAA D2 and D3 college basketball.
Father Time is catching up to her. She plans to retire from officiating in 2024.
A Public Life
I call Pedro Segarra on the telephone later in the afternoon. He is in his Hartford home.
Earlier, he was honest with students about his journey to the U.S. For his first eight years, he was raised in “sunny Puerto Rico.” His life includes things he doesn’t recommend students do, including running away from home. He is honest.
Segarra arrived in Hartford after escaping circumstances in New York that were “too overwhelming for a 15-year-old. It was an act of desperation, but it was also an act of survival,” he says of his coming to Hartford. Looking back, he acknowledges it worked out for him.
Back then, Segarra had to work to support himself and stay out of trouble as well—gangs were a big problem in the South Bronx and Hartford. “I can relate to a lot of the kids there (at GHAA), many of whom face similar situations in terms of challenging home and community situations that they constantly need to navigate.”
It’s not a happy story.
He likes sharing his story because the themes of hard work and keeping oneself together to triumph are the foundation of his life. “It’s not a happy story,” he recalls. “But it sort of has a happy ending in the sense of being able to overcome a lot of those challenges.”
“The presentations were great,” he says. “The students were so well-prepared. In the 9th grade, we have kids exploring, researching and talking about mental health issues that are very prevalent in our community and their community.”
One Door Closes
Segarra has been walking the streets of Hartford for over 50 years. He’s seen change, but much more still needs to happen in the city. He knows the obstacles.
“I used to think I would be more disconnected from the youth as I got older. What was personally satisfying to me was that despite my advanced age now, I still felt a connection and that the students were listening carefully.”
When he does decide to retire, which could be as soon as three or four years, he plans to stay active. “I’m going to do exactly what I did today.”
Reflecting on his speech to students, Segarra encourages others to share their expertise and knowledge with youth.
When asked what makes him optimistic about the world, he responds, “The youth because they are better able to understand what’s going on.”
Anthony Price is an entrepreneur, writer and publisher of Mini Books, inspiring stories for people who are curious about the world.