February 21, 2020

Youth voices inspire mental health solutions

Young people in foster care and the juvenile justice system share their personal stories to help inform and improve care.

Hear from 4 young people who experienced early trauma and their advice for helping others come out on the other side. Pictured, left to right, Maya Coley, Heather Huddleston, and Justin Martinez.

Maya Coley entered foster care at 16, after spending her childhood living with a mother addicted to alcohol and drugs. Not long after, Coley underwent involuntary weekly “reunification” visits with her mother, who was unprepared to take her back.

“My mother understood she couldn’t physically hurt me anymore, but every week she would make sure to say things that hurt.”

It took 2 months for Coley to convince her foster parents and social worker that the meetings with her mother had to stop. “I have a hard time trusting people. But I really learned that I have to advocate for myself.”

Now a student and peer educator, Coley’s advice is simple: “Listen to foster kids. In the eyes of the people who were around me, I didn’t know what I was talking about. But I had lived with my mother for 16 years. I knew my mother.”

Coley shared her story during a youth listening session in Oakland, California — one in a series of similar sessions held in the state — hosted by Kaiser Permanente in partnership with Mental Health California. Part of Kaiser Permanente’s efforts to improve mental health and wellness and mitigate the negative impact of ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), the sessions provide a space for young people ages 16 to 26 in foster care and the juvenile justice system to engage in honest dialogue and self-expression.

“I have a hard time trusting people. But I really learned that I have to advocate for myself.”

Breaking cycles of trauma

ACEs are negative experiences in childhood that have a direct relationship to poor health later in life and are defined as traumatic childhood events before the age of 18, including abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction.

The young people who participated in the listening sessions have experienced a wide range of difficult circumstances, including physical and verbal abuse, homelessness, street violence, and many have witnessed domestic abuse. According to the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, young people with exposure to adverse childhood experiences are at an increased risk for both mental and physical negative health outcomes later in life. The greater the number of ACEs experienced as a child, the greater the risk.

“Each of these young people has a powerful story to share. Hearing from those impacted by ACEs informs our work and the care we provide to individuals and communities impacted by trauma. It also helps us continue to build the evidence for the case that we can break inter-generational cycles of childhood trauma and create a brighter future for children and families,” said Don Mordecai, MD, Kaiser Permanente’s national leader for mental health and wellness.

“Children in the foster care or the juvenile justice system are often at risk for not getting the mental health help they need, and are more likely to have greater problems that have an impact on the family and the community,” said Kristene Smith, CEO, Mental Health California. “The goal of our youth listening sessions is to create a stronger mental health care system for some of our at-risk children in California.”

“Once I left home and moved out, all these things started crashing on me ... I had no idea it was a problem when I was living it — it was just my life and it was normal.”

Sharing personal stories to strengthen mental health care

Jerry Salazar from Los Angeles, a 23-year-old who participated in the Fresno session, said he was pulled out of school and sent to the juvenile justice system after being accused of selling drugs. Salazar said he felt ostracized and bullied by juvenile justice officials — he said they wouldn’t listen to him even after he explained he had nothing to do with the drug issues at his school. “I had to learn how to cope with that and deal with people who I felt had no respect for me or my family,” he said.

“I really wish I had access to mental health resources when I was in high school,” said Sydney Bice, who participated in the Sacramento session. “Once I left home and moved out, all these things started crashing on me. I was experiencing mental health issues, and I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea it was a problem when I was living it — it was just my life and it was normal.”

Young people like Coley, Salazar, and Bice are becoming advocates for themselves and others who have been in foster care and the juvenile justice system, and by sharing their stories, they are informing Kaiser Permanente’s efforts around mental health and wellness.

“For many of these young people, this is the first time they’re learning what trauma is, processing what they’ve been through, and how their experiences continue to contribute to some decisions they’re making,” said Tracy Ward, licensed clinical social worker and community benefit project manager at Kaiser Permanente. “It also provides the adults in the room with the opportunity to understand what they have been through, which energizes us to really want to deliver solutions for them.”