By Matt Martinez
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
As kids and families streamed into the Sherman Phoenix one evening in May, there was a DJ waiting there to greet them.
The thumping music, open-aired atmosphere and good vibes were just a preview for the main event: “Trap Therapy,” a session that pairs urban music with mental health messages.
Tarsha Wiggins, founder of Speak Wellness Behavioral Health and Consulting and a licensed clinical social worker, has been leading Trap Therapy sessions since last year. The goal is to make participants feel more comfortable talking about mental health.
This was the first Trap Therapy session for kids that was open to the public, she said. In adapting her lessons from the adult therapy sessions, Wiggins said the tweaks were minor.
“The lessons don’t necessarily change,” said Wiggins, who also partners with the Office of Violence Prevention.
“It’s about the same content, but making sure that it’s broken down in a way where children can understand it. We’re still talking about the power of our thoughts. We’re still talking about what trauma is and what that looks like and how we work through it—we’re just using different examples and analogies for kids.”
In the session, Wiggins covered topics like identity, positivity and trauma among youth. Wiggins said a strong sense of identity and self could help people through tough times.
She spoke candidly about the prevalence of trauma, especially in the “hardest ZIP codes” where many of the attendees came from. She spoke about trauma within family and friendships, but also the trauma experience by communities because of violence, poverty and stigma.
She taught attendees how to reframe negative thoughts and insecurities. She emphasized the importance of speaking up and addressing issues rather than internalizing them and finding trustworthy people to share feelings with.
With each of these lessons came a song and a bit of a challenge for Wiggins. Trying to reach a younger crowd meant finding newer songs to which participants would have an emotional connection.
Choosing the right music can make or break the whole experience. For De’Anthony Butler, a 16-year-old student from Nathan Hale High School, the music was effective in getting his guard down.
“I expected some of these songs, but they were cheating,” De’Anthony said. “They were using the up-down-left-right for some of these cheat codes. I wasn’t even supposed to be singing, for real.”
Wiggins ends each lesson with a matching song. Shawn Butler, a 16-year-old student at Nathan Hale High School and De’Anthony’s brother, said the transitions between sessions were a good way to convey the lessons through lyrics.
“I liked the way she incorporated the songs with her lessons,” Shawn said.
A few of the lessons hit home for audience members like De’Anthony.
“I felt the words she was saying in my heart,” De’Anthony said. “I thought, ‘This really makes sense to me.’”
Wiggins said some of the session’s content was also for parents in the audience.
Semma McCrary was at the session with her 10-year-old daughter, Chloe. The combination of music and therapy was a major draw.
“In our community, we relate everything to music, so I thought it was a great way for Chloe to get exposed to more therapy,” McCrary said.
During the pandemic, McCrary paid close attention to mental health issues among kids. She wanted to make sure Chloe, an only child, didn’t feel the effects of isolation.
So they started walking every day as much as they could, and getting out more. They even started playing Pokémon Go, a phone game that lets players catch digital creatures in real-life areas, to pass the time. She also began practicing visualization techniques with Chloe.
In the Trap Therapy session, McCrary said it was good to hear Wiggins break down tough concepts and bring it to the kids’ level.
“I think her clinical skills are pretty amazing for this group,” McCrary said. “It breaks their trauma and lets them know that they have someone they can talk to on a more cultural level.”
Wiggins said it’s important to reach as many people as possible with these messages because issues of mental health are often hidden in plain sight.
“It’s closer than you think,” Wiggins said. “I think that sometimes we perceive it as: ‘Oh, that’s the someone else.’ But the reality is this is affecting your bestie, your friends, your neighbor, your coworker.”
Wiggins said that once we realize how widely mental health impacts us, we’ll be able to make real change and help others — and ourselves — more effectively.
“When we approach mental illness from the perspective that this is affecting someone that I love, someone I value and I cherish, you approach it with a different level of energy and respect and empathy,” Wiggins said. “If we all just approached it with that, the world will be so much better for it.”
For more information
Wiggins said she hoped to host one session a month for youths but was still figuring out details. For the latest updates, email her at email@example.com.