It’s no secret that foster youth struggle with mental health issues. According to research compiled by the National Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice and Permanency Planning at Hunter College, about 80 percent of foster youth have mental health issues. As someone who grew up as a ward of the state, I know first hand how mental health affected me throughout my life, from depression to alcoholism and more.
When I was 12 years old, my dad passed away. After his death, I started to suffer from depression as my past really started to haunt me. Out of nowhere, childhood traumatic memories of being beaten, molested, starved, and moving to 14 different homes in foster care resurfaced and lingered in my mind. Around this time, my foster mom also passed away, followed by my biological mom, grandma, and my cousin who hung himself. These events led me to make irresponsible decisions such as using drugs, drinking heavily, and hanging out with people who were bad influences. My life became a huge party. By the time I was 17 years old, I was using heroin daily. I was so far diverted from reality that it wasn’t too far down the road before I was looking at death. One thing that a lot of people fail to realize is that alcohol and some drugs are depressants. They only make the problem feel better for a moment and, then, are followed by extreme agony. That’s not even the worst part! The withdrawals are worse because they are an accumulation of high blood pressure, insomnia, anxiety, and delirium.
Another huge part that contributed to my battle with mental health issues is the COVID-19 pandemic. I didn’t receive any stimulus checks. I worked throughout the whole pandemic while dealing with alcoholism and depression. I was also denied housing for the majority of the pandemic. Once again, I felt I was alone. Working late night hours to pay into a system I was and still am not able to take advantage of frustrated me. It led me to keep drinking while living on the streets and in garages, battling for my life as voices were telling me to kill myself.
While I was attending Bakersfield College, I reached out to several members of the faculty for mental health support. But I was told that “we’re not psychologists.” I started to realize that other college peers were receiving a lot more support from college staff than I was. The lack of support made me feel very angry, lost, and hopeless because I was trying my very best to work two jobs and attend college full time. It was also a slap in the face when I didn’t receive the housing I so desperately needed during this time. This made my mental health even worse because the system had, once again, failed me.
Eventually, I detoxed from alcohol and drugs every month for six months. I then moved to San Luis Obispo to escape the memories I had of my hometown, Bakersfield, only to experience racism and manipulative behaviors. While I was staying at a shelter, I was denied simple things like a day bed and kicked out of the shelter for attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. For someone who deals with mental health issues, it was very unsettling to go to numerous shelters and have to deal with staff who made me feel marginalized, ostracized, and, once again, alone.
All of my experiences have really disrupted and affected my mental health negatively. I kept pushing through and making progress with very little help and a whole lot of determination. When case managers and social workers aren’t being held accountable, yet, hold me to the highest standard, it seems hypocritical. It almost seems like these professionals are only focused on setting people up to be attached to a system that doesn’t truly care about them. The foster care system is not designed to deal with mental health issues, nor do the professionals who work within the system want to or even care. What has helped me in dealing with my mental health issues are coping mechanisms such as running, riding my bike, eating healthy, playing guitar, and exploring new outlets. In my experience, these activities are not stressed enough in the mental health field. I hope no one ever has to deal with the struggles I had to face. I hope that everyone, especially current and former foster youth, can get the support that they need.