Youth Listening Sections, Oakland

Case Study

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “32% of high school students in California report they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for 2 or more weeks in a row”.

With nearly 1 in 3 high school students in California experiencing depression symptoms, a higher amount than the national average, it highlights a need to address the mental health of youth. Those that are in foster care or the juvenile justice system, or have experienced childhood trauma, have a significantly greater risk of PTSD, substance abuse, or being unemployed, or homeless.

In Alameda County, California, over 1500 children are currently living in foster care, with nearly 250 youth in grades K-12 in the Oakland Unified School district.

These foster youth often emancipate without a place to live and are significantly less likely than their peers to go to college, due to foster youth having substantial gaps in academic outcomes. These factors all lead to youth in foster care and in the juvenile justice system in Oakland being at an increased risk for negative mental health outcomes in adulthood.

In 2020, Mental Health CaliforniaTM partnered with Kaiser Permanente, to launch a series of Youth Listening Sessions in Northern California, to address the increased mental health concerns for youth, especially those in foster care and the juvenile justice system.

“When you think about children in foster care or the juvenile justice system, they are often at risk for not getting the mental health help they need and are more likely to have greater problems that have an impact on the family and community. Our goal for the Youth Listening Sessions was to create a safe space for emotional expression.”

These sessions aim to connect with young people in the foster and juvenile justice systems, ages 16 to 26, to explore ways to strengthen youth mental health programs in California to better serve this population. Mental Health California and Kaiser Permanente wanted to give an opportunity for these young adults to engage in dialogue to be able to advocate for improvements to programs and provide information for service providers. The Listening Sessions combined listening dialogue with art and creativity for youth to have a safe space to dialogue and express themselves.

Mental Health through Virtual Technology

For their Oakland Youth Listening Session in January 2020, Mental Health California and Kaiser Permanente partnered with NewPathVR to provide them the opportunity to express themselves artistically through virtual reality. Virtual reality is a technology that is being increasingly used in the medical, behavioral, and mental health fields to assist patients with a variety of symptoms and conditions. CEO of NewPathVR, Lisa Padilla, has found that her company “has been serving the community with programs such as art therapy for four years and while some of the technology has been changing and the software is advancing, the transformative nature of the experiencing we witness have been as powerful as ever.”

During the Listening Session, the young adults were invited to express themselves using virtual reality and a 3D painting program [note: I’m not sure what applications the youth had access to during the event, so let me know if you want me to adjust this, I provided an application as a placeholder]. They were free to explore and use the application to create whatever they liked, to truly express themselves. While experiencing virtual reality, the kids were able to explore a world that they created through their art. Padilla explains, “once they are in VR, it’s like their minds have seen a new country or they’ve tasted a new food. They are brought back to their initial discovery phase of life, when they were younger children. In fact, that’s what it does for us all. It opens our minds like we are children soaking it all in. Something completely new, for the first time.” The Youth Listening sessions provided a way for these at-risk youth to experience virtual reality and create and view a world that is enhanced by what they create, giving them the building blocks to see what they can create and change in their own lives.