When Aaron Diaz, 16, looked around his Compton, California, neighborhood, he saw people struggling, with little access to mental health care. “Collective trauma is embedded within the community,” Diaz says.
That’s why he decided to spend his summer learning about careers in the mental health field. Diaz is part of the first crop of high school students in a new pilot program offered by the state of California in partnership with the Child Mind Institute. Called the Youth Mental Health Academy, it gives Los Angeles high schoolers from marginalized backgrounds a chance to explore careers in mental health.
Diaz hopes to join the mental health workforce one day so he can lift up the diverse voices and stories of his community, he says: “This program can give me the tools and resources necessary to highlight and create healing spaces.”
Program leaders hope that exposing more students to mental health professions will lead to more diversity in the field, which will in turn lead to better access to support for students of color at a critical time for them.
“We’re in a child mental health crisis,” says Dr. Eraka Bath, the director of the Community Partnerships Core for the Youth Mental Health Academy at the Child Mind Institute. She also works as an associate professor of psychiatry and the vice chair for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. “We need to increase our behavioral health workforce by any means necessary,” she says.
Data shows that young people who are racial minorities can be especially vulnerable when it comes to their well-being. For example, research shows that reports of depression and anxiety increased sevenfold among Asian Americans during the pandemic, according to Stephanie Cherestal, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at the Jed Foundation, while Black teens, on average, experience multiple instances of racism a day, episodes that are linked with depression.
“Black people in the United States are less likely to receive mental health care than other groups,” Cherestal says. “And when they do receive care, they are less likely to have access to someone who understands their background, because only 2 percent of psychiatrists and 4 percent of psychologists are Black.”
The discrepancy stems from systemic factors like economic inequality, as well as cultural ones.
“Families may believe that therapy is ‘a white people thing,’” Cherestal says. “This response is likely due to the mental health field being a predominantly white space.”
A recent national survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that more than 85 percent of psychologists are white.
Southern California, where Diaz lives, is one of the most diverse regions of the country. Yet a recent analysis by ABC7 News found that white residents in the region are three times more likely to find a provider who looks like them than are Asian or Latino residents, and 1.5 times more likely to do so than Black residents.
Patching the Pipeline
Like across much of the country, most counties in California do not have enough mental health professionals. But the state has made mental health services, especially for young people, a priority in recent years. The California Department of Education has created resources for students who may need support, and has identified the lack of diverse providers as a problem the state needs to solve.
Studies have shown that counseling and therapy are more effective when providers share a cultural understanding with patients. And research suggests that minority patients prefer health care providers of color, Bath says. Patients can better bond with providers who understand where they come from, which can lead to more successful therapeutic outcomes.
The Youth Mental Health Academy is open to high school juniors and seniors from underrepresented backgrounds, including students of color, LGBTQ+ students, students experiencing homelessness, those involved in the juvenile justice or foster care systems, and those from rural or otherwise isolated communities in Southern California. Students like Diaz find out about the program through their schools.
The academy is free, and students can even earn up to $2,000 by participating. The program will be taught by a variety of mental health professionals with advanced degrees and years of experience, Bath says, adding that it’s designed to be strengths-based, affirming, trauma-informed and resilience-building.
“Youth will learn about reducing stigma for mental health,” she explains. “They’ll learn about the importance of identity, about youth participatory action research and the importance of engaging the community, while also get[ting] college readiness skills.”
The academy begins with four weeks of project-based learning focused on mental health issues, symptoms and treatment that will expose students to different careers in the mental health field. Over the following school year, the academy will continue to support and counsel students, preparing them for higher education and for an internship in the mental health field over the program’s second summer. Students will also work on capstone projects together.
Classes will be held at four community colleges in the County of Los Angeles, Bath says. Each class will include about 25 students, as well as several young adult mentors who will be paired with students to provide support and answer questions about their path into the mental health field.
The program also supports students by providing college and career counseling, helping with resumes, making introductions to others in the field, and matching students with college and early career mental health workers to provide mentorship.
“The idea is to create a really rich, multi-generational learning collaboration where these youths will get exposed to different people along the academic trajectory, as well as other learners who are closer in age or who are at that next stage,” Bath says. She thinks near-peer mentors will benefit from the program as well, giving them opportunities to network, gain professional experience and give back to their communities in a rewarding way.
The hope is to expand this program to other underserved communities in California, Bath says. Even though these students will not join the workforce for years, the Youth Mental Health Academy created a curriculum that students can use to better their communities in the short term, even as soon as next semester.
“One of our goals is increasing the footprint of affinity groups and spaces where youth can talk about mental health in a way that breaks the silence and decreases the stigma,” Bath says.
Students should emerge from the academy with a strong foundation of language and strategies to communicate and manage mental health challenges, Bath says. They will also learn how to create safe spaces for students to discuss their mental health challenges within their own communities.
“Sometimes you have to name it to tame it,” she says. “Many youth have never had the opportunity to be socialized around mental health.”