Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the enormous demand for mental health care has made referrals to providers cumbersome and often difficult to navigate, especially for New Yorkers facing economic hardships. According to the New York Daily News, Statistics show that issues of mental health are especially prevalent in communities of color throughout the United States, with 16 percent of Black and African American people, 19 percent of Native Americans and Alaska Natives, and 16 percent of Latinx/Hispanic Americans reporting having a serious mental illness in the past year.
Research suggests that up to 70 percent of young people involved in the court system have a diagnosable mental illness. Yet nonprofits working with justice-involved youth face numerous obstacles in helping them address their diagnosis or even access the health care needed to identify it. When an Avenues for Justice (AFJ) program participant is either mandated by the courts to receive, identified by AFJ program staff as being in need of, or expresses to their court advocate a need for therapy, the long waiting lists often prevent direct engagement. Given the lack of immediate access to services, in addition to the backlog around mental health care, organizations need to find alternative solutions. And that requires increased philanthropic support.
By securing grants focused on mental health offerings for justice-impacted populations, AFJ and other organizations would be able to eliminate the need for clients and their families to navigate a complicated referral and placement system with larger providers. Increased funding would enable community-based organizations to add therapeutic interventions, which are typically inaccessible to BIPOC people otherwise.
As nonprofit organizations working in the criminal justice field look to offer more mental health programming, they also should forge partnerships with mental health counseling centers. Such collaborations provide justice-impacted young people with direct access to mental health resources and content that speaks to their specific experiences. In advance of Mental Health Awareness month this May, AFJ has implemented Power Principles for Surviving and Thriving, in collaboration with Muse & Grace Mental Health Counseling. The six-week program focused on empowerment and emotional regulation uses literature and lyrics, art, play, and drama therapy techniques to help participants “gain a deeper understanding of their relationship to themselves, to loved ones, and to the world.” Beyond direct on-site services, organizations also can take a holistic approach to mental health by supplementing clinical services with social and personal care events.
For mental health care to be successful, young people need in-house services so they are not discouraged by being shuffled through different entities for treatment. This requires support to help staff handle the evolving needs of clients as well. Specifically, organizations need to provide employees with training focused on trauma-informed services, ensuring that they are equipped to handle their clients’ mental health needs. The training should include education on the neurological effects of trauma, strategies for engaging clients with a strengths-based framework, and how staff can address self-care in response to the emotional toll their work can take on them. Therefore, mental health grants should not be restricted to simply covering the cost of direct services but also cover staff development and training.
At the root of it, justice-impacted young people need holistic support from caring, trusted, and trained staff at organizations that meet them where they are. This consistency and stability can enable program participants to thrive in their rehabilitation journey and chart a new path forward.
Angel Rodriguez is the co-founder and executive director of Avenues for Justice, a court advocacy program created to help keep young people out of jail. He and his team have been working on reducing recidivism rates within the NYC area since 1979.