[Noozhawk’s note: Third in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation. Click here for the first article, and click here for the second.]
YouthWell has come a long way since the nonprofit organization launched in 2016 to raise awareness about the need for mental health resources and services tailored more for youth than adults.
Five years later, the burgeoning coalition of key community stakeholders is providing mental health support for youth, young adults and their families through education, prevention and early intervention.
Just as YouthWell founder and executive director Rachael Steidl and her supporters envisioned, dozens of mental health-care providers, advocates, educators and nonprofit agencies are successfully making a difference for those they serve.
“We’re bringing everyone into the conversation,” Steidl told Noozhawk. “The reason we focus on collaboration is because it’s important to bring everyone to the table, not just organizations, but schools, the health-care community, parents, young people, and law enforcement.
Rachael Steidl, founder and executive director of YouthWell, believes collaboration has been the key to the 5-year-old nonprofit organization’s success. “We all need to hear from everyone and understand other perspectives to be more solution-oriented,” she says. (YouthWell photo)
“We all need to hear from everyone and understand other perspectives to be more solution-oriented.”
Through myriad partnerships, YouthWell and allied agencies have developed education programs for students and parents, and they are working with the community to expand mental health services.
“Mental health is like any other health,” explained Karen Kelly, a parent liaison to National Charity League and Boys Team Charity Santa Barbara.
“We have people in the schools, youth programs, but we need to look at these the same way we look at other youth programs: anyone knows they can sign up for basketball or soccer or football. It should be that easy and that acceptable to sign up for programs that support mental health, programs that teach us how to roll through life in a healthy way.”
YouthWell has achieved broad success in 2021 — even with the added mental health-related burdens from the nearly 2-year-old COVID-19 pandemic. Considering the scope of those challenges, its accomplishments are that much more impressive:
Connecting Families: The online Youth Mental Health & Wellness Resource Directory launched in January and already serves more than 2,500 visitors a month — in both English and Spanish.
Education Empowerment: Eight Wellness Workshops — with Spanish interpretation — each reached more than 250 parents, students and those working with youth, with more than 1,100 additional views of the programs on YouthWell’s YouTube channel.
Raising Awareness: Through social media messaging and community newsletters, YouthWell has opened conversations and initiated education about mental health challenges. A “You Matter” social awareness campaign expects to launch next year which was designed working with a group of students from around the county.
But it’s in the area of championing change that the inroads have been deepest, thanks in large part to YouthWell’s Partner Collaborative of nearly 50 stakeholders, which meets quarterly to work toward systemic change.
A joint program with the Family Service Agency and the Mental Wellness Center provides free Youth Mental Health First Aid classes for parents and those working with youth. Another partnership with Sanctuary Centers of Santa Barbara and Children’s Medical Clinic bridges connections to provide access to psychiatric and therapeutic services.
After discovering community models being developed elsewhere, YouthWell began working with the Mental Wellness Center to explore bringing an integrated primary and behavioral health clinic for youth to Santa Barbara.
Two allcove centers based on the successful work being done by programs in British Columbia (Foundry) and Australia (headspace) recently opened in Santa Clara County under the leadership of Stanford University’s Center for Youth Mental Health & Wellbeing. A group of community partners is working to bring the allcove model to Santa Barbara to provide more physical, emotional and social services prioritizing early intervention.
“Not all kids are struggling with depression, but many are having a hard time feeling connected,” Steidl said. “If they can drop in to learn tools to manage their mental health, that it’s OK not to be OK, that therapy is OK, we can help reduce that stigma and get people the help they need before it’s too late.”
Riley Ellis, director of Sanctuary Centers’ Child & Adolescent Services, emphasized the need for early education.
“In a perfect world,” she said, “we would have such a robust early education program we’d be teaching the social-emotional learning skills, learning to talk about feelings and emotions, not having that be something we’re afraid of, so that people — and kids, in particular — don’t feel so alone in that process as we get older and life just gets more difficult.”
And it’s not just youth, Ellis added.
“We’d also educate families how to provide help in a healthy way,” she said. “We’d have readily available doctors so that a suicide attempt that ends up in the E.R. isn’t the first wake-up call, and we’d fill gaps so it doesn’t take two years for a person who’s struggling to get help.”
YouthWell’s critical early intervention strategy includes simple tools to help youth identify the signs of mental health vulnerability and learn how to manage them before it’s too late. (YouthWell photo)
The need for youth mental health services has never been more clear, Steidl said, particularly with the additional stressors brought on by COVID-19.
“If we look at the first 12 months of COVID in California, we saw a huge drop of (emergency room) visits across the state for medical reasons, but a horrendous increase in children and adolescents with mental health issues,” said Barry Schoer, executive director of Sanctuary Centers.
According to statistics compiled by the California Department of Public Health, Santa Barbara County has the 13th highest rate of youth suicide (ages 15-24) among California’s 58 counties.
Steidl cites a Harris Poll Survey that found a staggering seven of 10 teens are struggling with mental health during the COVID-19 crisis. A Stanford University survey last fall revealed that 83% of high school students reported at least one stress-related physical health symptom.
That kind of evidence is all the more motivation for YouthWell in its ongoing conversations with its partners. Those discussions were the catalyst for the collaboration between Sanctuary Centers and Children’s Medical Clinic.
“We’re sitting there at Cottage Health talking about the Pediatric Resiliency Collaborative, when YouthWell helps us understand the big hole in early intervention with kids was that pediatricians couldn’t get any referrals to mental health service providers,” Schoer recalled.
“We have a huge shortage of psychiatric care in this town. It can take six months to get in to see one, and most don’t take Medi-Cal.”
In response, Sanctuary Centers hired a new psychologist, at YouthWell’s suggestion partnered with Children’s Medical Clinic, and is quickly ramping up to a patient threshold that will demand the addition of another psychologist.
When Cottage Health learned about the program through the Partner Collaborative, it asked for help in Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital’s neonatal intensive-care unit. It was one more step toward filling another gap in mental health care in the community.
“Let’s intervene early,” Steidl said. “Let’s not wait until people are in crisis.
“As a community, we can all make a difference. We don’t have to have all of the answers, we just need to be willing to lean in, listen, show compassion, and offer our support so those struggling don’t feel alone.”
“I believe we will have turned a corner when we begin to treat mental health challenges with the same respect and care we show someone who has a physical illness or injury so that youth and caregivers do not feel shame asking for help.”
Click here for more information about YouthWell, or to partner, utilize the resource directory, donate or attend the wellness workshops. Click here to subscribe to the monthly YouthWell newsletter for updates about mental health in Santa Barbara County. Click here to make an online donation.
YouthWell Resource Directory