RYSE Center in Richmond innovates where mental health resources are scarce

Kanwarpal Dhaliwal, a co-founder of the RYSE Center, embraces Sydnee Adreana Perez during an icebreaker activity.

Kanwarpal Dhaliwal, a co-founder of the RYSE Center, embraces Sydnee Adreana Perez during an icebreaker activity.

A young man walks down the street with paper target taped to his shirt over his heart. He puts his hood up and looks around. Two young women, wearing the same target on their heads, walk past a Richmond school, comporting themselves with the same sense of fear. The video concludes with shots of each youth turning to the camera and stating flatly, “This is what it feels like.”

After the video, the room falls silent. RYSE associate director Kanwarpal Dhawali steps to the front of the room and makes a simple request: Take a deep breath.

The group does so, and the moment of quiet contemplation seems to rejuvenate. Nearly as soon as they exhale, the room launches into a discussion of how they can create safe spaces for youth.

The video characterized the theme of the RYSE Youth Center’s annual trauma and healing training by depicting the way many youth in Richmond, particularly young people of color, experience public spaces.

Joe Kim, the RYSE Center’s community health director, explained that these individuals are constantly traumatized by structural racism, whether it manifests itself in government policies, law enforcement, or media.

“Those things are also defined as trauma in our work,” he said.

The event’s approximately 70 participants were mostly stakeholders and leaders who work with Richmond youth. The goal of the training was to help attendees create safe spaces for young people in the community.

But from breathing exercises in the morning and freshly baked cookies at lunch to aromatherapy gifts at the day’s end, participants also got the chance to do some of their own healing.

And that in large part is why RYSE organized the training: It arose from research where young people said they were affected not only by their own trauma, but also by the trauma adults in their lives carry around, according to Kim.

“What young people are saying very clearly is the adults are messed up,” Kim said, “and that’s ending up playing out in the services that are supposed to be provided.”

According to Kim, many young people noted that they were also affected by the failure of adults in their lives to deal with trauma. Essentially, traumatized adults passed those feelings onto youth, he explained.

Researchers say that trauma can cause not only mental health issues such as PTSD or depression, but also physical symptoms. It can even change one’s brain chemistry. Still, with so much trauma in Richmond, there’s surprisingly little mental health support. The Richmond-San Pablo area is a federally designated Health Provider Shortage Area for mental health, which means there are more than 20,000 residents for each mental health provider in the area.

“Given the amount of trauma that we’ve experienced here in Richmond, this is a place where access is a huge issue,” said Michelle Milam, crime prevention manager for Richmond Police Department.

She said it’s hard enough to clear all the hurdles just to get people to ask for help with their mental-health issues, only to find that mental health resources are often not accessible.

That lack of traditional avenues of care has given rise to alternative methods of addressing mental health, such as the space RYSE created for young people.

But Milam reminded that more needs to be done. “Even though we have these structures set up, it’s in no way enough for the level of trauma that we have,” she added.

Despite — and maybe because of — those lack of resources, RYSE has become something of a regional leader when it comes to helping young people. Many training attendees came from Oakland and San Francisco, and some from as far as Sacramento.

Chris Cooper works for the Sacramento Violence Intervention Program, where he does case management. He and his colleague Evin Johnson traveled to RYSE to learn more about addressing youth trauma.

Near the end of the event, RYSE explained some of the services they provide that successfully put this philosophy into practice. Through all the services, they try to maintain the frame that they presented at this training: that.

Ultimately, RYSE’s mission is to turn the tables: structural racism and other stressors are the problem, and it’s time to end treating traumatized youth as disordered.

Kim says he puts it this way to young people: “This is you reacting in a very normal way to a very abnormal system.”

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