By Elisa Rocha Bupara
A better script could not have been written for four African American panelists who shared their stories – at times in barely audible whispers due to painful memories or at other times in rousing oratories that elicited an occasional “Amen” from the audience.
The four panelists, Dr. Lakita Long, Rachel Thompson, Ronnica Gaines and Tanesha Bailey gave their powerful testimonials at the African American Student Wellness Community Forum in Stockton February 27, 2019 hosted by Be Smooth, Inc., a local nonprofit that promotes education, healing and positive youth development, and the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission. The panelists represented parents and mental health services providers.
“As a survivor I was intimidated; couldn’t talk to people,” one of the panelists said. “I took it out on others who had everything that I wanted. Parents. Clothes. A stable home. I was different because of my skin color and because of the challenges I faced.”
The goal of the community forum was to discuss the mental health of school-age children in the African American community.
“My son has had severe trauma and many transitions: An absent father, instability in the home, homeless from age 1-6,” a panelist said. “Frequent moves, house to house, city to city. He would cry a lot, he lacked social skills and didn’t understand his peers. What calmed him down was one teacher that took the time to understand my son. And she would hug him when he needed it.”
More than 60 people attended the Wednesday afternoon gathering. They represented faith-based ministries, community-based organizations, clinicians, nurses, school-based therapists, educators, peer-to-peer mentors, youth organizers, behavioral health staff, and parents, among others.
Commissioner Gladys Mitchell, who has been on the Commission since 2016, welcomed participants to the forum.
“Thank you so much for coming out for this very, very important project,” she said. “I am a parent on the Commission who represents a child with a severe mental illness. We still struggle with his condition, but the opportunity that I have been given to do the work for other Californians is beyond amazing. We truly appreciate that you are here to discuss the importance of mental health services in the schools particularly for African American kids because a lot of us don’t want to deal with that issue.”
Following the panelists, attendees broke out into seven round-table discussion groups. Each group provided many recommendations and observations for ways to improve the mental health of school-age children.
“If a child tells you, ‘My daddy isn’t here. My daddy is dead. My daddy is not in the picture,’” Don’t shy away from that!” Thompson said. “They are already parentified. They are already latch-key kids. They are socially and economically defunded.”
Dr. Long added that there needs to be integration of solutions in the schools. “Work with teachers,” she said. “Make sure they are not re-traumatizing the kids. There is a lack of passion, a lack of connection. It’s in your energy. There is a disconnect on the education level. It’s your purpose. Go back and train teachers how to connect with kids.”
The roundtable discussion recommendations included the need to address hunger and violence, add clinicians to the schools, nurture parent/school partnerships, rely on colleagues and partners to build confidence in forging relationships, cultural humility and many more.
“Thank you very much for sharing your stories, for being authentic, for your powerful discussions today,” said Dr. Dawnte Early, the Commission’s Chief of Research and Evaluation. “Next steps for us is that we summarize this information and issue a brief. Our goal is to do this as soon as possible. Also, within the next six months, we will put together a report of all these stories as well as others that will help us identify the programs that are working for all communities and what we can learn from them to address the mental health needs of our children, parents and families.”
Darlene Moore, a mental health program coordinator with Sacramento County said she would like to see the panelists and the community forum presented in every county in California.
“I thought it was really good, very informative and very well thought out,” she said. “It was presented very well. I learned about some of the policies and procedures within the school system that affect all children and families particularly African American families.”