by Wayne Munchel, LCSW   0 Comments

There is growing recognition of the need to better support, educate and mentor vulnerable LGBTQ+ youth within TAY programs. An innovative program, called the Speak Your Mind Academy was recently launched to help meet this need. Stars Behavioral Health Group partnered with the Long Beach LGBT Center and Youth in Mind (under a contract awarded by the Department of Mental Health) to train 23, enthusiastic LGBTQ+ identified young people to educate their communities on mental health awareness, stigma identification and advocacy issues. The graduates will now go out into their communities to train two 1-hour trainings based on the topics they learned in the academy.

It was an amazing learning experience for all involved. Having LGBTQ+ TAY individuals “speaking their mind” about issues that they have faced, and discuss the importance of improving the quality of care for LGBTQ+ community members sends a powerful message. Adult providers can train TAY staff to gain more insight and awareness, but when it comes from the voices of our own LGBTQ+ TAY individuals, that’s when the truth, advocacy and insight becomes apparent. The Academy trainees will begin to train communities from their perspective, which only helps others to really grasp the stigma from a firsthand experience that many LGBTQ+ TAY youth encounter on a daily basis. The hope is that many people from different communities will hear the voices of these incredible young people, and begin to see that LGBTQ+ people are not a stereotype, which hopefully will enhance resiliency and decrease the risk factors from rejection.

TAY aged youth face many challenges regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. Yet, at the same time LGBTQ+ youth have a higher rate of mental health issues then their heterosexual peers. This stems from the rejecting factors that many TAY aged youth experience either from family members, their community, and society. Caitlyn Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project (based in San Francisco) has done tremendous work gathering data that demonstrates that LGBTQ+ youth from rejecting backgrounds experience higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation, homelessness, contracting HIV or sexually transmitted diseases, etc.

What can these 23 empowered youth do about this? Three simple actions; they can educate, they can support and they can advocate. These youth can help ensure that TAY program staff are made aware how culture, religion, and our own belief systems can play a role in offering the most effective supports. By sharing their own stories and insights, they can sensitize providers to some of the unique challenges that LGBTQ+ youth are dealing with in their lives.

The Speak Your Mind Academy Trainees were vocal regarding LGBTQ+ individuals having the same legal rights, and support as any youth would need. The key factor is to refrain from shaming. Many of the Speak Your Mind Academy Trainees will say that they feel as though their sexual orientation or gender identity is the only thing some people see. They want to be seen as people who think and feel like everyone else. Yet, when faced with rejection or when negative comments are made around their sexuality or gender; that is when risk factors increase. When LGBTQ+ TAY youth are already facing rejection from family, their community and society, they will look to their TAY providers to provide that safe zone. A place where they can go and be themselves while being treated with compassion, nurturance and unconditional support — and inspire 23 more LBGBTQ+ youth speak their minds.

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by Wayne Munchel, LCSW   0 Comments

 

When youth labeled with a serious mental health diagnosis qualify for federal disability benefits (SSI – Supplemental Security Income or SSDI – Social Security Disability Income), does it represent a step toward self-sufficiency or a step down a slippery slope into perpetual disability and poverty? When they deem it appropriate, well-intentioned Transitional Age Youth (TAY) program staff work hard to establish SSI/SSDI for their young adult clients by supporting the finding of “complete and total disability.” What short and long term impacts does this determination have on the life trajectory of emerging adults? To what extent is it both boon and bane?

Perhaps no other decision by young adults, their families and providers has a more significant impact on youth with serious mental health conditions. (Studies indicate that less than 1% of people who are placed on SSI come off of it at a later point.) On the one hand, SSI/SSDI provides the critical means to meet basic survival needs of food and shelter. For the large percentage of impoverished young people, and especially foster youth aging out of the system, SSI/SSDI can make the difference between homelessness, hunger and exposure to further traumatization. On the other hand, it can frequently serve as a disincentive and deterrent to a youth’s career explorations and undermine their sense of self-efficacy. A key developmental task for young people is thought to be about discovering who they are and where they belong (i.e. identity formation). Being assessed as “completely disabled” can have a profound impact on this formative process.

According to reports, disability rates for the TAY age group have increased significantly. Although these young people report wanting to work and see themselves as able to work, they also indicate that they do not receive the support they need to work. Our communities, colleges and labor workforce are deprived of the considerable talents, contributions and potential of these young people. More importantly, the young people themselves miss out on the opportunities to learn skills and develop strengths through struggles, and never access the protective factors and meaningful roles that school and work can offer.

Ditching the Snare: SSI as a Step Toward Independence

What can be done? The following recommendations are offered for consideration:

  • Engage young people and their families in exploring questions about what SSI/SSDI means to them and their futures. Fully discuss and frame any disability benefit discussions with youth, young adults and their families as:
    1. An investment in the young person’s ongoing development, “discovery” and recovery
    2. A disability status for now – everyone experiences changes and fluctuations in their health and well-being over time. (We anticipate progress and growth.)
    3. An opportunity to mature and find their paths as young adults. Most TAY don’t “emancipate” until well after their 30th birthdays and require prolonged financial and emotional support to find their ways to stable employment, housing and relationships. For youth living with a mental illness who are also foster youth or coming from low income backgrounds, this uphill path can be much harder, but is definitely doable.
    4. An “emerging” identity, still under construction, but does not signify that they are “completely and totally disabled” – not now, not ever.
  • Provide active and ongoing benefits counseling. Ensure that youth and their families are familiar with SSI incentive programs such as Ticket to Work. Inform and educate TAY about how earned income will affect their benefits (if you work and collect benefits, you will always have more money than receiving benefits alone).
  • TAY programs should establish Career Development (Supported Education + Supported Employment) as priority purposes, not as an afterthought or something that can happen after symptoms are eliminated. Staffing patterns need to reflect this commitment (Having a part-time Job Developer/Van Driver won’t cut it.) Mental health symptoms, impairments and deficits should be addressed as barriers to community inclusion and full participation. Keep in mind the precept of the “dignity of risk and right to failure.”
  • Never succumb to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Whatever the level of functional impairments, keep youth engaged in a futures-oriented process that expects growth and opportunities.

What are your thoughts?

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