Tears are streaming down Nakeya Bell’s face as she listens to students in her IQ Squad program, Amari Haysbert and Jenalyn Phanh, open up about their trauma.
At just 18 years old, Haysbert and Phanh are both young women of color who say their lives were upended by unstable familial structures, housing insecurity and COVID-19 while attending high school.
“I didn't expect to come here and cry. I'm not even a crier," said Bell, a program director at the nonprofit Youth Forward. Bell’s program, IQ Squad focuses on getting women of color increased access to culturally-grounded mental health support. "Seeing Amari share her story, it's heartbreaking to know that she had to suffer, that she had to struggle.”.
The COVID-19 pandemic surfaced a youth mental health crisis that was surging throughout California. In Sacramento County, the Department of Public Health says it worked with almost 12,000 kids with mental health-related concerns between 2021 and 2022. With so many students requiring mental health support and school districts confronting mental health clinician shortages, local organizations are stepping up to bridge the gap for students of color to meet the demand.
Bell’s IQ Squad has been one of those organizations, becoming a consistent support students like Haysbert and Phanh were desperately in search of.
“I would have either been in a worse situation,” said Haysbert. “I probably wouldn't be here at all, or I just would be the same Amari where I [would] have to hide. But I'm not no more.”
A survivor of sexual abuse who says she’s been devoid of parental support, Phanh’s life and future success hung on balance.
“I didn't even think I would live until I was 18,” said Phanh. “But to this day, sometimes I say depression might get the best of me because I feel like I'm fighting to survive every single day.”
Accessibility to consistent and appropriate mental health services on school campuses can intervene at the time when students need it the most, diminishing the heightened opportunity gap for students of color. But with Sacramento students facing multiple crises, schools are facing difficulty keeping up.
Sacramento County’s mental health professional shortages are shocking
For the first time in over a decade, the Sacramento County Office of Education updated its mental health plan, but bolstering the mental health system at the county level has been slow-moving.
In the past year, the county has doubled the number of school psychologists from 20 to 40 for the 300 public schools in the county, an increase that’s still not enough to meet needs.
The new plan has added prevention tactics for youth health and wellness: Schools will incorporate wellness centers on campus; use an approach that accounts for the mental health and wellness of the student’s support network; and the schools will employ responsive communication which develops pipelines for mental health and wellness careers to deliver community-specific guidance.
David Gordon, superintendent of the county’s public schools, is passionate about improving mental health services for students, which he says are disparate from the education system.
“[School psychologists] are not going to just do treatment and they're not going to just do therapy,” he said. “They're going to be ambassadors to the school to help them understand how the medical system works and how important it is to focus on prevention rather than treatment long-term.”
However, without funding, he says he finds himself restricted in what is possible.
Dr. Imelda Padilla-Frausto, a research scientist at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, says there’s a need for equitable — not equal — distribution of mental health resources to properly aid students of color. Her vision for equity is providing more support to schools with marginalized students, instead of the same level of support.
“The intersection of social determinants of poor mental health existed even before the pandemic and especially in communities of color,” Padilla-Frausto said. “So we do see that compounding effect, especially for students of color.”
Before the pandemic, Sacramento County's ratio of students to mental health professionals was well above the 250 students per mental health professional that was recommended, according to Kiddata.org, a resource for health and wellness for children across California.
For the 2019-2020 school year, there were almost 6,300 students allotted to one social worker, 1,300 students allotted to one school psychologist, and almost 700 students allotted to one school counselor.
Similar shortages plague the state. In 2020-2021, there were almost 600 students for one school counselor in California, according to the American School Counselor Association.
|Type of Work||Students per personnel|
|2019-2020 (Sacramento County)|
Padilla-Frausto says these ratios are alarming.
“One school psychologist for every 500 students, that's a lot. Even with 250 students, that can be a really large caseload for a school psychologist,” she said.
Twin Rivers Unified, Elk Grove Unified, San Juan Unified and Sacramento City Unified school districts independently contract up to 30 additional psychologists to reduce the ratio. And the number of professionals sought — positions that sometimes remain unfilled — varies by district.
Padilla-Frausto says community-focused organizations and familial units can offset the burden on teachers, schools, districts and the county. And the collaboration has begun with pilot programs throughout Sacramento.
“The data sometimes it's outdated.”
As a young Black woman, Amari Haysbert has been subjected to racial and social microaggressions in school settings. But while those issues take a toll mentally, she was less likely to report them for most of her school career.
“I can only speak from a Black woman's perspective because of who I am,” Haysbert said. “We don't get to speak about our emotions as much because expressing our emotions can either come off as rude or disrespectful or even ratchet.”
Black youth are less likely to be outspoken or have obvious indicators when undergoing trauma. Haysbert says IQ Squad has helped her identify that she should seek help when she had an anxiety attack in high school.
“Generational trauma is a very big thing, especially with women of color. There's a lot of ‘sit down and be quiet’ that you pass on to your daughters over and over and over again,” Haysbert said.
Generational trauma is a very big thing, especially with women of color. There's a lot of ‘sit down and be quiet’ that you pass on to your daughters over and over and over again.
Nationally, a rising trend has indicated that Black kids, and particularly Black girls, are dying because of mental health-related illnesses.
Dr. Blanche Wright, a postdoctoral fellow and clinical psychologist at the UCLA School of Public Health, works on equity and disparities in mental health for minority communities and addresses the possible flaws in data.
“The data sometimes it's outdated,” she said. “It's not what we want to know in the here and now. And sometimes it's only a piece of the pie.”
Up to 40% of Sacramento County’s students reported experiencing feelings of sadness and hopelessness, according to California’s Healthy Kids survey from 2020-2021. Students of vulnerable populations — foster youth, women, Latinx, Black, unhoused, queer — were at higher risk, at times reaching 70% of vulnerable youth experiencing hopelessness.
However, the data is not fully representative of the intersectional nature of mental health and wellness, Wright says.
“You ask about sadness and hopelessness — that's one type of mental health challenge,” she said. “But there's a lot of other types that are not always represented in data that we're getting … and there is probably an underreporting of mental health broadly.”
Wright says there are also underlying cultural stigma associated with mental health that can under-represent racial demographics in data.
Local organizations step up to support the youth mental health in crisis
Youth Forward is one of many organizations laying the groundwork for robust, culturally responsive support at schools.
Amaya Noguera is the program officer for the Community Informed Responsive Wellness Program through the Center at the Sierra Health Foundation. The Center partners with four local organizations — Improve Your Tomorrow, ONTRACK, Roberts Family Development Center, Rose Family Creative Empowerment Center — to specifically target Black youth in schools with varying intersectional identities.
“We are not rooted in our trauma,” said Noguera. Her organization takes a multifaceted approach to mental health for students of color: Resume building, career support, literacy, mentorship and mental wellness workshops are just a few of their holistic offerings on campus.
“We really work on developing social-emotional connections, helping young people be able to articulate for themselves what they're experiencing,” Noguera said. “[We] assist them to the best of our abilities in a way that they feel empowered, as opposed to feeling like they're just going through a process that does not really fit with their experience.”
Louis Bryant / Sacramento Observer
The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, along with Youth Forward, are part of the Sac Kids First Coalition, which is advocating for Measure L, a youth funding initiative on the November ballot. The measure would allocate roughly $10 million from the general fund — or the “equivalent” of 40% of the annual cannabis business tax revenue — to promote positive youth development and youth violence prevention. It could also create a sustainable pipeline for organizations providing mental health services at schools.
Noguera’s work with local programming invests in adults in the community who have no external obligation other than to check in on a student's progress. However, the organization says funding for this program runs dry in June 2023, and such resources could be pulled from schools.
Mental health workers and advocates like Noguera and Padilla-Frausto say the mission to shift the burden from teachers, the schools, the districts, and the county must involve the integration of community-based organizations that can provide equitable comprehensive mental wellness services for students of color.
Nakeya Bell of Youth Forward is an example of that.
She calls her work the she-movement — a movement to empower girls of color. She says this was missing in her upbringing. Bell’s resilience, empathy, and willingness to be present are what bring students like Amari Haysbert and Jenalyn Phanh to her program.
“This was a full circle moment for me,” Bell said. “Seeing Amari and Jenalyn share their stories was speaking to my inner child that created IQ Squad so that young women didn’t have to go through what I did.”
- Youth Forward is located at
- Hiram W. Johnson High School
- Luther Burbank High School
- McClatchy High School
- American Legion High School
- Improve Your Tomorrow is located all throughout the county and can be found here.
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