May 18, 2023

Addressing mental health trauma in a local community

Trauma-informed outreach efforts in Orange County are being recognized and expanded through a collaborative partnership.

Breaking down barriers: Damian Martinez finds a safe space to open up to his therapist at Higher Ground Youth & Family Services.

Community leaders in the city of Anaheim were aware of gangs, drugs, and poverty in a particular area but did not fully understand the extent of the problem until a shooting, which involved police, in July 2012 led to a riot.

In response, city officials and the police department recognized the need to improve outreach efforts and better serve the community in that troubled area. Higher Ground Youth & Family Services was selected to assist in this goal because of its successful outreach efforts to youth in the area. The city of Anaheim provided a 4-acre park between Higher Ground and the region where 5 local gangs organize.

Higher Ground expanded its outreach efforts by partnering with local colleges and universities to train students and provide mentors for the youth. Five universities have integrated Higher Ground’s trauma-informed care, human trafficking prevention, and mental health outreach into their curricula.

The staff and interns at Higher Ground uncovered several layers and generations of mental health trauma, which led to the development of a family wellness center that provides direct mental health services to all members of the family. The center serves as a workforce development site for both marriage and family therapists and social work graduate candidates at local colleges and universities.

The unique feature of Higher Ground’s work is that its mental health outreach programs are located at a park in gang territory in Anaheim. The 7 small counseling rooms at the wellness center are constructed with sound absorption materials and have observation rooms that allow professors and students to watch and learn in real time.

“I see a variety of clients through Higher Ground, including adults whose children were in the program and sought counseling for themselves,” said Kim Virrueta, a therapist doing pro bono work at Higher Ground. “The adverse childhood experiences I have encountered with my clients at Higher Ground include severe poverty, neglect, and abuse.”

Adopting a trauma-informed approach

In 2020, Higher Ground completed the construction of the family wellness center. However, in the 2021-22 school year, children exhibited greater than normal social and emotional challenges, prompting the organization to seek funding to address these issues more deeply.

Kaiser Permanente was the first to step up and fund initial ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) screenings for second and third graders, with plans to expand to all youth. Higher Ground is now implementing a trauma-informed approach and has adopted a whole-person approach to care, recognizing the importance of addressing mental health issues alongside physical health.

Kaiser Permanente aims to improve the conditions for health and equity in our communities, increase access to care through our work across core areas, and meet members’ unmet social health needs.

Higher Ground’s efforts to provide counseling for youth and families, as well as workforce development for new clinicians, have been the result of a collaborative effort. The funding provided by Kaiser Permanente was significant, as it allowed Higher Ground to develop a plan to respond to the social and emotional challenges faced by the youth in the community.