How Side by Side's Youth-Centered
Mental Health Care Addresses Systemic Racism
Lately, Side by Side staff has been discussing systemic racism. This form of racism is embedded in many of our society’s systems, creating and fueling racial inequality and discrimination, often in housing, wealth accumulation, education, employment, criminal justice, and political representation. Systemic racism also affects equity in access to mental health services – so what is Side by Side doing to address it?
“Within some communities such as African American, BIPOC, and AAPI, there is a strong mental health stigma, and a tendency to downplay the need for mental health services,” said Denisse Mendoza, Director of Community Services for Napa, Marin, and Sonoma. A lack of diversity in mental health providers and language gaps both exacerbate the stigma.
“People are less likely to seek help from authority figures who do not look like them,” Mendoza explained. Rebecca Hathorn, East Bay Regional Director, agrees. Hathorn says that systemic racism is pervasive in the child welfare system. “We work to combat that in the Real Alternatives transitional housing program by trying to hire black and brown staff and placing youth in communities and apartments where there are other community members that look like them,” she said. “We also include youth in the hiring process. In my 17 years at Side by Side, we have never hired staff who were not given the ‘thumbs up’ during the youth interview.”.= 

In addition to hiring diverse mental health providers with varied cultural values, language skills and life experiences, Side by Side also trains our clinicians and other staff to be aware of their own biases, strengthen cultural competency and provide culturally responsive care.

Ahnjolique Haskins, Director of Transitional Housing for Real Alternatives adds, “As an agency, we recognize how important authentic connections are. When we hire staff, we’re always looking for candidates in all of our roles and positions that can relate to our youth, whether they are people of color or LGBTQIA+, or former foster youth. Youth are assigned to case workers, mental health specialists and other providers based on the match that would make them feel comfortable and supported.”
Insurance and immigration status both pose additional barriers to mental health equity. “Historically, BIPOC communities are less likely to be insured or seek insurance for fear of government involvement,” Mendoza said. “Sometimes this is caused by race-based socio-economic status and the inability to afford care. Other times, it’s about access, even for those who have coverage.” Those who are undocumented are often fearful of being reported to authorities and therefore choose to not seek out services. This can cause a perceived power differential between mental health professionals and clients/families. “We might not perceive it that way, but many of the families and communities we work with do,” Mendoza said.

To address this barrier, Side by Side goes to youth directly in schools, bringing various programs that don't require insurance, and utilizing grants to help provide services for youth who need additional support. 

Aman Basdeo Fitzgerald, Our Space Program Manager, said that BIPOC LGBTQIA+ youth are at a double disadvantage. Trans Americans are more likely to be low-income, with 47.7% of transgender people living below the poverty line, compared to 28.9% of the general U.S. population (Williams Institute). “The majority of these transgender Americans living around the poverty line are people of color,” Basdeo Fitzgerald said. “Our work is made necessary by the consistent inequalities trans youth of color face from overt anti-transgender legislation to discrimination in employment, schools, and their homes. Through community outreach, working directly with schools, housing programs, staff training, and hiring LGBTQIA+ staff of color, we are working to address this gap in our communities.”
Sometimes, youth and families are simply unaware of the services available or lack the self-advocacy skills that would help them seek the support they need. Community outreach in multiple languages to increase awareness of services, in addition to information regarding their rights, helps families to develop self-agency so that they can advocate for their needs.

Mendoza says perhaps most important is making it a priority to reach across cultural differences and develop trust. Honest and transparent conversations help ease concerns and fears. “Allowing the families we work with to have a safe place to voice their concerns, have their questions answered, and have voice in their own treatment may sound simple, but it’s of utmost importance,” said Mendoza.

Ultimately, as mental health providers, it’s our responsibility to ensure that all communities we serve have access to equitable treatment. 
Support Side by Side's Counseling and Early Intervention Programs in Sonoma County

Thursday, May 19, 2022 from 6-8pm
Griffo Distillery, 1320 Scott Street, Ste A, Petaluma