Highlights from Lincoln Child Center’s Youth Mental Health Forum
By Irene Cantizano, Communications Intern
Last Friday, the Lincoln Child Center, a mental health provider organization in Oakland, hosted a Youth Mental Health Forum aimed at identifying ways to best meet the mental health needs of children and youth in California. The forum included a panel of mental health advocates, experts, and legislators with specialties in mental health, education, child welfare, and juvenile justice.
Although the panelists approached the issues from different angles, all of them agreed on some important areas to focus on in 2015, including: prevention and early intervention, school-based mental health services, home and community-based interventions, and equal access to quality care for all young people.
The panel discussion began with the courageous testimony of advocates from Youth in Mind (YIM), a nonprofit organization founded and steered by youth affected by the mental health system. YIM’s advocates shared personal experiences with mental health issues and child-serving systems. Susan Manzi, a former foster youth and now Executive Director of YIM, shared that it wasn’t until she joined YIM when she was nineteen that she began to understand the complicated and siloed systems that she grew up in. She advocated for community-based mental healthcare, saying, “children should be able to engage in their own mental health.”
Reinaldi Gilder, a YIM advocate from Oakland, told the panel about the challenges he faced as a young boy after a family member was murdered. The trauma affected him at school but there was no one for him to talk to. Now, as a trauma survivor and parent of a third grader in the Oakland Unified School District, he advocates for the integration of mental health services in the schools. According to Gilder, the current system of pulling students out of the classroom for behavior management or counseling simply does not work. In fact, it often leads to truancy. “Schools should have an understanding of mental health in order to treat mentally ill children instead of punishing them,” he said. “We have to raise strong children, not fix broken ones.”
Cecelia, a YIM advocate who became involved in the mental health system when she was eight years old, urged legislators to “think of the people with mental health
Following the testimony of YIM advocates, children’s mental health experts reiterated the need for better school-based services and treatments. Chris Stoner-Mertz, President and CEO of the Lincoln Child Center, highlighted the need for mental health training for teachers so that they can recognize symptoms in their students early on and refer them to available services and supports. She also advocated for universal mental health screenings in schools.
The experts also discussed the need to focus on home and community-based services that serve the whole child. As panelist Dr. Barbara Staggers, Division Chief of Adolescent Medicine at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, put it: “you can’t detach a teenager’s head from their body.” Dr. Staggers advocated for flipping the current treatment paradigm from treatment and risk elimination to building power and resiliency in youth and families. Panelist Alex Briscoe, Director of Alameda County Healthcare Services, agreed saying, “we must see the people that we serve not as the problem but as the solution.”
Experts on the panel also highlighted what they consider to be the main problems with the current mental health system for youth in California. Carroll Schroeder, Executive Director of the California Alliance for Children and Families Services, noted the lack of a unified and overarching children’s mental health policy in California, saying, “In the last 15 years we have disassembled the mental healthcare system in California…This State needs a children’s mental health policy that makes sure that every child with mental health [issues] get all the treatment they need.”
Panelist Patrick Gardner, President of Young Minds Advocacy Project (YMAP), highlighted three main areas integral for system-wide improvement: 1) ensuring equal access to services for all young people, 2) improving coordination between child-serving systems, and 3) improving the quality of services offered. He emphasized the necessity of implementing a performance outcome system to accurately measure the affects mental health services are having on young people in California. “The quality of care fundamentally affects outcomes for young people” he said. Right now “the State of California can’t even tell us what they’re buying with our mental health dollars…It makes no sense to spend billions on services that may not work.” He concluded by calling all stakeholders to action, because, as he said, “if we want our system to be efficient, the first thing we need to do is to get stakeholders to be effective in raising their voices…We need to be better at expressing our desires for the system.”
The legislators on the panel acknowledged the need for improvements in the mental health care system. Senator Loni Hancock of District 9 and Chair of the Senate Committee of Public Safety, discussed the intersection between mental health and criminal justice systems reform, saying “We’re clogging our jails with people with mental health and drug abuse issues…[These people] are not criminals.” Assembly Member Tony Thurmond of District 15 and Chair of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, agreed saying, “If you don’t think mental heath is a public safety issue then you are not paying attention.”
Assembly Member Rob Bonta of District 18 and Chair of the Assembly Committee on Health, recognized the opportunity to make an impact on children’s mental health policy, and urged the experts to recommend concrete changes to the system that could be implemented this year.
The forum ended with comments and questions from community members, who included advocates, parents, educators, providers, and others. The well-attended forum demonstrated the deep commitment of community members on this issue and was an important first step towards organizing a better youth mental health system for all young people in California. The Lincoln Child Center plans to schedule a convening with legislators and create a Mental Health Task Force to build on the momentum created by the forum. YMAP will continue to update you on this effort as it unfolds.
Correction: A previous version of this blog incorrectly identified Assembly Member Tony Thurmond as the current Senior Director of Community and Government Relations at the Lincoln Child Center. He no longer holds this position, since joining the California State Assembly in November.