It was the summer of 2012. I was on my way to UC Berkeley after graduating from high school with an over 4.0 GPA and receiving numerous awards. My social worker dropped me off at the edge of the campus and wished me good luck.
I began hearing the voices similar to the tone of my foster parents that I was not going to make it, I had no common sense, and I wouldn’t survive. In this case, the voices were not just subtle whispers, but feelings of paranoia and needing to have all my ducks in a row before school ever started. I rushed around the campus, trying to get every logistical thing handled before the school year started. I had these racing thoughts and found myself sitting in front of the dining hall, feeling extremely paranoid. Someone must have called the police because they were there to chat with me and hand me a card to the mental health center at UC Berkeley. I took it as a sign to be even more paranoid.
Fast forward, the voices and the paranoia drove me to run in the streets in a heightened state of fear. The police came to intercept me crossing the street illegally, and I was put in the police car. Although the officer had a kind tone, I was still afraid and tried to walk out of the police car. He then handcuffed me, and I was fueled with terror. The next day was the first time I was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The officer knew I was a young Black woman. What that officer did not know was that I was a foster youth, just freshly transitioning to adulthood in need of tailored care and support.
Law enforcement and policing in mental health cases have been harmful when current/former foster youth are in need of support and trauma-informed mental health services. What’s more is that law enforcement have a very limited capacity in their training to take the role of a mental health professional. The officer that encountered me in Berkeley was nice, but still handcuffed me, which was very traumatizing. I had two other run-ins with police where they were not so kind and brutally forceful. In a fight or flight response, I tend to resist slightly, but I don’t resist further because of the fear of being shot. Ultimately, it’s not law enforcement that needs to come front and center to the scene of a mental health crisis.
The mental health resources available in summer of 2012 were smaller than the ones in the spring of 2023, but we can still do better. There has to be a series of services tailored to the foster youth’s particular experience. For example, most people would gladly choose going to outpatient care over being hospitalized if a mental health professional is skilled enough to de-escalate the root of their fear. There have been unconventional ways that this has worked for me, like music therapy. One time, someone played music, and it brought me to complete peace until I could get further help. But, often, the solution isn’t quite deemed necessary.
Ultimately, the systems that are connected to foster care are in need of reform. There has to be a creative innovation towards the way foster youth with mental health issues are treated. Some of those ways could include:
- Allowing the police to not take the driver’s seat in mental health crisis interactions. It doesn’t mean that the police don’t have value in their role. But a mental health professional is a better fit to intervene during crisis situations, especially considering the trauma of when youth are first taken away from their homes.
- Changing the way de-escalation happens with system workers is also very important. I can’t say all the ways that can look because I am not a mental health professional, but asking what foster youth who have been in those situations feel like they would have needed in the moments they have had a mental breakdown will help future situations.
- Most importantly, learning how to develop quick next steps, especially with a foster youth’s trusted adult supporter is important so that they can follow actionable steps towards recovery.
Revamping the way mental health cases are handled with foster youth means no longer reinvoking trauma. It also means the recovery process for the foster youth is even more attainable when they are able to feel safe with a supportive team around them. At the end of the day, a foster youth’s life could be saved when we consider all the possibilities towards lasting change in the systems that connect to foster care. I know for a fact that if I had a caring team supporting me at that time, my life would have been drastically different.