Since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the enormous demand for mental health care in New York has made referrals to mental health providers cumbersome and often difficult to navigate through. Moreover, the national therapeutic supply and demand issue has impacted New Yorkers with economic hardships the hardest. According to the Daily News, “across the state, rates of suicide, depression and anxiety among kids are soaring. New York’s mental health system is at its breaking point — and families are pleading for help.”
When an Avenues for Justice (AFJ) Participant is either mandated by the courts, identified by AFJ program staff as being in need of, or expresses a personal need for therapy to their Court Advocate, the long waiting lists across the City often deters direct engagement. Due to the lack of immediate access to services, in addition to the backlog around mental health care, AFJ has initiated staff trainings, group therapy sessions, and therapeutic bi-lingual parenting workshops to address the growing mental health needs of our Participants. These new mental health offerings at AFJ eliminate the need for our Participants and their families to navigate a complicated referral and placement system with larger providers. By providing group therapy at our two community centers and individual counseling sessions through direct-placement contracts, AFJ has been able to add therapeutic interventions which are usually inaccessible to our Participants. In 2023, eleven Participants have received high caliber mental health care which fits into their schedules and is easily supplemented with other offerings in our HIRE UP program.
In advance of Mental Health Awareness month in May, AFJ has implemented Power Principles for Surviving and Thriving, in collaboration with Muse & Grace Mental Health Counseling. This weekly group is a six-week series on empowerment and emotional regulation using literature and lyrics, art, play and drama therapy techniques. Participants will gain psycho-education skills around the impact of trauma, while processing their own feelings in a supportive, confidential setting with trained therapists at our community centers. Muse & Grace will also offer culturally conscious, multi-disciplined approaches to mind-body wellness, for one-on-one individualized counseling sessions for our Participants via telehealth.
“Group therapy is a powerful way to cultivate community and provide a space for exploring issues, experiences and perspective. By using the arts in our group therapy work, participants can gain a deeper understanding of their relationship to themselves, to loved ones and to the world. Engaging with a poem or a song or drawing something out can help to shift your view and even your behavior. It is critically important that we normalize mental wellness in our Black and Brown communities. Being self-aware, emotionally stable and fluent in feelings all contribute to our resilience.” ~Muse & Grace
Beyond direct onsite services, AFJ is also taking a holistic approach to mental health by supplementing clinical services with social and personal care events. Weekly group cooking sessions on healthy meal prep with Court Advocates and a professional chef, coupled with full-body workout classes led by a resident AFJ fitness instructor, all encourage overall wellness which is directly tied to mental health improvement. We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from our Participants about these classes and the attendance rate has been high. Over 30 AFJ Participants have taken part in the cooking and physical fitness classes in 2023.
As we begin to offer more mental health programming, we want to ensure that our staff is equipped to handle the evolving needs of our Participants. A major component of this year’s mental health initiative is partnering with a psychotherapist to provide our Court Advocates with hands-on training focused on trauma-informed services. The trainings include education on the neurological effects of trauma, strategies for engaging clients with a strengths-based framework, and how our staff can address self-care in response to the emotional toll their work can take on them.
Historically, AFJ has outsourced clinical services to third party providers, so we are thrilled to be piloting internal clinical services this year---expanding our already encompassing wraparound approach to court advocacy and crime prevention. All of this is made possible thanks to support from the Robin Hood Foundation, the NBA Foundation and the Marion E. Kenworthy-Sarah H. Swift Foundation.