conley6.gif (2529 bytes)


Seeds of Hope
How group therapy is transforming the lives of Latina teens in Milwaukee

Photo copyright

November 2016

Every Monday night, teenage Latina girls gather at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center on Cesar E. Chavez Drive for group therapy. Melissa Waldo, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, leads the group. At this meeting, the teens cut words and pictures from magazines and create collages about the healthy and unhealthy messages they’ve received from media. As they cut and paste, the girls discuss how these messages impact their self-image. “They talk about the lack of cultural representation of the Latina woman,” Waldo says. “And this, too, has affected how they may view themselves.”

Waldo, who earned her master’s in social work from UW-Madison, has been running social support groups for teen girls for six years. Last year she started SEEDS (Self-esteem. Empathy. Empowerment. Discovery of Self.), a 16-week emotional treatment group, because she saw a need to help Latina youth who were experiencing mood and anxiety disorders.

“Typically, they are referred by a colleague in behavioral health or by a medical provider,” she explains. “They may have had some change in their life that adversely affected them — a parent left, or they changed schools, and they can’t sleep or are moodier. Some of them are cutting (themselves) as a way of releasing their emotional discomfort.”

Latina teens report higher rates of depression than youth from the general population. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18.9 percent of Hispanic students in grades 9 through 12 had seriously considered attempting suicide — a higher rate than both black and white students. This may be due to bicultural stress. At home, some Latina girls are expected to live up to the standards of a traditional Latino household, speaking primarily Spanish and honoring family needs over their own. At school, they may encounter bullying and peer pressure to experiment with sexuality, alcohol and drugs.

Lily*, a 16-year-old junior, joined the SEEDS program because she was depressed and feeling suicidal. “I wanted to feel close to other people,” she says. “It helped a lot to know there were other people just like me. I knew I wasn’t alone, and I could count on people.” Lily attributes this shift to the deep level of sharing she experienced in her SEEDS group.

Each week, the group meeting begins with an icebreaker, like trust falls. Then the girls gather in a circle for check-in, one of the most loved and valued parts of the weekly session. “Each girl presents what they’ve been experiencing and how they dealt with it,” Waldo says. “Once in a while, one of the girls will say something about her issues at home or a problem with a friend or a significant other, and another girl will say, ‘Can I offer a suggestion?’”

Lily completed the program a year ago. “I enjoyed talking about how our week went. We would talk about how we felt, and Melissa would talk about how we could change our feelings about the situation,” she recalls. “Listening to the other girls and how they felt and contributing to the conversation and giving them advice to help them feel better, that helped too.”

After check-in, Waldo presents a curriculum to help the students identify, express and manage their emotions. They do cognitive behavioral work, identifying how their thoughts affect their emotions. Waldo teaches coping tools like breathing and relaxation exercises. The program also includes presentations on topics like bullying, sexuality and teen dating violence.

It was during one of the educational sessions that Mariana*, a 14-year-old ninth-grader, saw a video that triggered a bad memory. “The videos told us how to understand being abused,” she said. “They had me crying because I realized I’d been abused by my cousin. I had always thought it was my fault. Melissa and the group helped me see that it was not my fault.”

For Mariana, the group experience transformed her feelings and her life. “It helped me realize that I wasn’t the only one who had problems,” she says. “And it helped me feel more confident. I met people who have been my friends to this day.”

Lily also credits the group with changing how she feels about herself and others. “It helped me to get closer with myself. I learned to appreciate who I was. I learned to love myself and not care about what anyone thought about me but myself and God,” she adds.

For more information about the SEEDS group, visit

*Not their real names.


This story ran in the November 2016 issue of: