Highlighting Youth Perspectives in the Mental Health System
LaRay, 19, is currently youth president for the Circle of H.O.P.E. system of care in St. Joseph, Missouri. As youth president, he serves on Circle of H.O.P.E’s governing body and works to infuse youth voices in all discussions and decision-making. LaRay also serves on workgroups focused on bringing evidence-based models and practices to Circle of H.O.P.E. and improving the community’s service model. Recently, LaRay was involved in the creation of a youth group with Youth Alliance, an organization based in St. Joseph that focuses on substance abuse prevention and services. Through this partnership, LaRay is working to bring training around youth needs to local organizations.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I have been in [mental health] services since I was young. I was in a program called Medication Management from age seven to sixteen. I also did therapy services, but that only lasted for about four years because I didn’t like it. I went to a special school that has many different services in one building. Going to school there really helped me because they took the time to address me one-on-one with specialized teachers and staff.
I have been diagnosed with ADHD, but I’ve been able to overcome that obstacle. It feels good because you’ve worked so hard and accomplished your goals, which makes it fun. I am getting discharged from my Case Management, which means meetings with my Community Support Worker will be ending next month. It feels like a really big accomplishment.
What kind of experiences have you had as a young leader in your community?
The biggest impact our youth group at Circle of H.O.P.E. has on our community is the Youth Tip Sheet we created. This sheet contains many tips that allow youth to have a voice and a choice when they go see the doctor. They can ask questions like, “Will this medicine affect my weight?” or “How long will I have to take this medication and how will it help me?” We’ve had a lot of good response to that. Other communities are looking to use the Youth Tip Sheet, too.
We have also participated in outreach events in the community to make sure people know a youth group is available for any interested youth to join. We attend events like the Pumpkin Fest and go to places like the mall and pass out flyers and answer questions. We feel like the outreach we’ve done—making commercials, passing out flyers, setting up booths at community activities—has really made an impact and has opened our doors to the community for youth to get involved.
Family Guidance is a program for kids with behavior problems that has a goal of returning kids to public schools as soon as possible. I was asked by the Director of the Children’s Program to attend elementary schools to discuss bullying. That was incredible; we spoke to a total of 12 classrooms at three different elementary schools. A lot of the kids had questions for me about my experience with bullying, how I responded to it and how I handled it. These kids were really excited and interested to hear from a high school student.
How would you describe your experiences as a young person in the mental health system?
It was really challenging and scary. One time I had to be taken to a mental hospital. When I got there, I was really scared because I had never been away from my mom for such a long period of time.
I’ve learned that it’s the people that make a difference and make you feel better in those situations. They have to have a passion and if they don’t, the youth will get that vibe and it will scare them. Throughout my time being affiliated with the mental health system, it was very challenging and I dreaded going to appointments. It is scary to feel like you have no control. But, I grew up and gained knowledge by being a part of Circle of H.O.P.E.
Tell us about times you needed support and didn't have it.
I needed support from the moment I realized I needed services. When I felt judged and not supported, the biggest thing that kept me going was remembering that what other people think didn’t have an impact on me and [that] the choices I make are important. When I had someone to go talk to it was a big relief, but when I couldn’t do that, I would do things that I felt would decrease my anger like writing, walking, or listening to music, especially songs in different languages. These things were my hobbies and things I liked to do, so I started doing them when I was upset and they made me feel better.
Are there any particular people or programs that were helpful to you in your transition?
The Community Support Worker played a big part. They know you from a professional standpoint and can make judgments about what you need to work on. My special education teachers, especially one named Ms. Fisher, were incredible. There were times I would go into class with a bad attitude and I would be rude and disrespectful. She would tell me to watch my attitude or make me go into the hallway to get myself together. Sometimes that was all I needed and after a while, I was able to do that for myself. It’s not the title of the person that matters but the passion to work with youth that make the biggest change.
Do you see your peers as a strong support system?
I do. I had to change my friends because they were starting to be the type that got in trouble and I had never gotten into trouble before and didn’t want to because of something my friends did. So, I had to let them go and they got mad at me. But, my peers with Circle of H.O.P.E. have kept me on my toes and taught me a lot. My friends that are good influences have taught me a lot. Having the right friends makes a difference.
What helped you to be able to be focused when your friends may not have been?
It’s not always easy but I think the biggest motivator is to have a goal, not just thinking about the present. What motivates me is graduating college. Having passionate people in my life really made a difference. Looking at them and knowing they went to college and were successful led me to believe that that was what I needed to do. It makes the biggest difference to hear that working towards a goal and getting an education are important from someone you actually look up to. I will be the first person in my family to graduate. A lot of people don’t think they have a choice. [They think] that where they grew up dictates what they can do. But having people encouraging me and telling me I can do whatever I want was motivating. Also, being held accountable by people at my school kept me on track. To hear them say that life isn’t easy sometimes but doing something you’re passionate about can make a difference made me think, am I actually going to go down the road of going to jail and being in trouble? Or can I actually be someone totally different from my family?
How would you encourage other youth to get involved with leadership roles like you have done?
Start asking questions. When people see that, they will want to see more from you. Ask for more opportunities. Ask to be able to work in the community and explain what mental health is and what youth voice and choice is. Express your opinions about how youth should be involved in evaluation and involved in agencies. A lot of people might think that you may not have good ideas because you’re a teenager, but working hard makes a big difference as it shows them you have a voice and you are capable of having the knowledge about something you’re a part of. Also, work closely with your peers as a team to get things accomplished.
What are your ideas for improving the effectiveness of programs that are targeted towards youth in the mental health system?
Having more people that are willing to listen and are willing to take time out of their day to speak with youth is the biggest thing that makes programs work. Growing up, it wasn’t always easy and I didn’t always have people who were willing to listen and share ideas. Those people are needed more in programs for youth. Also believing that youth have a voice [is important]. When I was younger, people wouldn’t talk to me at the doctor’s office. They just talked to my mom. When I used to go to the psychiatrist, she would only talk to my mom and prescribe medication without me there which was frustrating. I think providers look at the age and think if you are a teenager, you don’t know anything, but that is not the case.
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