Above: (Photo by Crystal Rivera) Merced City Youth Council members Cynthia Ratzlaff, Julian Perez and Nicholas Sizemore celebrate during the city’s recent Undivided Youth Festival at Applegate Park. The event focused on addressing mental health issues affecting local teens and included resources, fun activities and a musical showcase for families and youth.
By Hannah Esqueda
MERCED, Calif. — As the federal debate surrounding health care access continues, local advocates are quickly working to promote mental health services and resources targeting Merced youth.
Local health care systems and providers are still adapting to the influx of eligible patients as a result of last year’s expansion of access to all California children under 19. However, attempts to spread awareness of services also coincide with anecdotal reports of Merced youth suffering more frequently from anxiety disorders, a trend county health officials began noticing at the start of the new year.
“We’ve seen more of an increase and more heightened awareness from the Hispanic families in the community looking for services for their children,” said Betty Hoskins, division director with the Merced County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services Children’s System of Care.
“We’ve seen an increase in youth having more anxiety, specifically about their families staying intact,” she said. “They get very concerned, thinking like ‘when dad goes to work, is he going to come home?’ ”
This recent spike builds upon an older trend of Merced’s youth reporting higher-than-average rates of depression or hopelessness. According to 2011-2013 data from online research tool Kidsdata, minority teens in Merced County report feelings of depression at higher rates than statewide peer groups. The numbers are based on responses from 7th, 9th and 11th grade students who reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more.
Youth of color in particular were more likely than statewide peers to report feelings of depression, with 34 percent of Merced County’s African-American teens reporting such emotions, compared to 27.9 percent statewide. Asian and Hispanic teens in Merced County also reported higher numbers than statewide peers, with 35 and 34.3 percent respectively saying they suffered from feelings of depression compared to California’s average of 27.5 and 31.7 percent respectively.
Merced’s white and multiracial teens also reported feelings of sadness at rates higher than average, with 31.1 and 36.4 percent respectively, compared to 27.8 and 30 percent of statewide peers.
The region’s largest disparity with statewide trends was present in the county’s Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population of young adults, with local teens of that racial group reporting depression at a rate of 58.2 percent, compared to the statewide figure of 35 percent.
But while Merced teens across the board seem more at-risk than statewide peers for mental health disorders like anxiety and depression, finding adequate resources continues to be a hurdle for many.
“We have a lot of teens coming in with depression but there’s not a lot of counselors right now,” said Irma Chavez, clinician with Sierra Vista Child and Family Services.
Based in Modesto, Sierra Vista’s satellite office in Merced is one of several clinic groups working to meet the mental and behavioral health needs of Merced County’s low-income population. Until 2015, the group ran a program alongside First 5 Merced County, offering resources specifically for families with young children.
Last fall however, the group developed a new program aimed at meeting new state requirements for continuum of care. The clinic now serves residents of all ages, including youth 18 and under, who are experiencing mild to moderate mental health needs.
It’s that last detail that makes Sierra Vista’s services so popular within the community, and Chavez said she expects to continue seeing an increase in appointment requests as word spreads about the organization’s expanded services.
“Word is getting out and we’re getting referrals from everyone, even the courts,” she said. “There’s just simply not enough [offices] to refer out to.”
Chavez said she knows of only a handful of psychiatrists working with young adults and teens in Merced County. Of those, only a few private practices accept Medi-Cal insurance making it difficult for many of the community’s low-income families and youth to find adequate services.
Even accessing clinical services like Sierra Vista takes time, and potential clients are required to undergo a screening through their Medi-Cal provider before getting an approval number. After answering Medi-Cal’s intake questions, residents can call Sierra Vista or other community clinics with their reference number and make an appointment to receive “whatever services Medi-Cal has approved for them,” Chavez said.
“Typically we see individuals who have depression, anxiety or ADHD,” she said. “Anything more moderate or severe and we refer out to Merced County Mental Health.”
Those cases often end up at the CUBE (Community United by Empowerment), a drop-in center providing mental health services and life skills training for youth ages 16-25. While designed for youth experiencing severe emotional distress, the facility is open to young adults and teens throughout the county, regardless of clinical needs.
“They don’t necessarily have to be a consumer of mental health, anyone can come here out of the community if they so choose,” said Dr. Jennifer Jones, community enrichment director at the CUBE.
“The goal [here] is to kind of give them a support system to where if they’re coming from the other [mental health] programs and they’re needing some extra assistance in terms of being out in the community, [the CUBE] is where they can come and build up those skills,” she continued.
At the CUBE, youth are encouraged to play games, make art and be social. Attendees are also allowed to utilize the computer lab to polish up their resumes or technical skills, and staff are on-hand to help provide educational planning assistance and advice.
“Whatever the need is, whether it is identification, finding housing, enrolling in classes at the community college or getting certificate training — whatever they bring to us we try to figure out and help,” Jones said.
Manuel R., 23, agreed and said that he’s been coming to the CUBE off and on since it opened 10 years ago. The services he’s received there have helped him accomplish several key goals over the years, including getting certified to be a security guard. (We’Ced agreed to only use Manuel’s first name and last initial to protect his privacy.)
“I’ve been coming off and on here since I was 13 years old,” he said. “Now, I’m mainly looking for a job in the community and hoping to improve my skills in the application process.”
Jones said she’s hopeful that stories like Manuel’s will help encourage more young people to take advantage of the CUBE, particularly those in a transitional age. The center is also looking to expand it’s services to include more certification opportunities and will be using input from Manuel and other client regulars to help implement new programs.
“We’re really here to grow each other so we want to know what they think should be added,” she said. “We’re looking at how we can get more youth (to) the center.”
Manuel said that that apart, the CUBE also offers another valuable resource for the community — a place where teens and young adults “can stay out of trouble.”
“I think everyone should come to the CUBE, it’s really cool to just hang out,” he said.