Palm Springs-based nonprofit tackling youth mental health crisis one student at a time

We Are One United, formed during the early stages of the pandemic to address the needs of youth suffering from the effects of isolation, recently received a $30,000 grant from the Regional Access Project (RAP) Foundation.

A Palm Springs-based nonprofit organization focused on tackling the crisis in youth mental healthcare is celebrating grant funding that will be used to help Western Coachella Valley students most in need.

We Are One United, formed during the early stages of the pandemic to address the needs of youth suffering from the effects of isolation, recently received a $30,000 grant from the Regional Access Project (RAP) Foundation in partnership with Desert Healthcare District and Foundation. The money will be used to train and develop students in underserved communities of the desert, focusing on north Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs.

The Mental Health Initiative grant program comes at a critical point in the conversation around mental healthcare for young people.

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Data from a 2021 report from the U.S. Surgeon General shows that depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled around the globe during the pandemic. By early 2021, emergency department visits in the United States for suspected suicide attempts were 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for adolescent boys compared to the same time in 2019.

The pandemic isolated children from friends, teachers, and extracurricular activities and forced them to turn inward and rely on social media as their only method of communication. Young people were cut off from support systems, particularly school counselors and child welfare workers, making it harder to recognize signs of child abuse and mental health concerns.

Before the pandemic, a 2019 Desert Healthcare District Mental Health & Behavioral Health Needs Assessment report revealed a lack of awareness and access to mental health for young people and a shortage of practitioners in the Coachella Valley.

The report highlighted data from the California Healthy Kids Survey, which showed that during the fiscal year 2015-2016, 33% of students in grades seven, nine, and 11 in the Palm Springs Unified School District experienced chronic sadness and hopelessness, and 19% had considered suicide.

Lauren Bruggemans, CEO of We Are One United, said the organization’s unique grant proposal took a two-fold approach, targeting both students and adults in their communities in different ways to educate them all about mental health.

“We want to create a youth ambassador program,” Bruggemans said. “We will upskill them, not just in mental health and accessing resources, but also in digital marketing, creating digital content, and navigating the digital world.”

We Are One United aims to address the issues by helping youth better spread awareness and understanding. The organization will also be vital in the future job market. Young people have an innate knowledge of social media. Bruggemans knows she and her partner organizations’ approaches have to be authentic to get through to young people and make them mental health ambassadors for their peers.

Rather than building a strict curriculum, Bruggemans would rather have the young people tell them what they want to learn and how best to speak to their peers.

We Are One United staff, including founder John Epps (right), at a backpack event at James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center in 2021.

Bruggemans’s strategy for reaching through to adults has less to do with TikTok and more with building a grassroots community and network of parents, caregivers, teachers, and counselors.

“We’d love to create parent support networks to connect and convene within different communities,” she said.

Instead of making diversity and cultural competency an afterthought, it’s at the heart of We Are One United’s program. That choice is informed by data from Desert Healthcare District showing a profound difference in access to mental healthcare among racial and ethnic minorities as well as LGBTQ+, disabled, and economically insecure communities.

More than 60% of local mental health providers surveyed said there was a high need for mental and behavioral health services for the Hispanic community, and 47% said the same for the Black community.

In the report, one mental health care provider is quoted as explicitly saying, “The lack of understanding of African Americans and the distrust between mental health providers and their trauma [is an unmet need].”

Underneath the trove of data on mental health is the anecdotal evidence from students, caregivers, and teachers that something significant has shifted.

“Kids as young as third and fourth grade don’t have an outlet for their anger and frustration, and it’s just expressing itself in volatile ways,” says Bruggemans.

The grant program’s funding is for a year-long project. We Are One United is still building a solid foundation and networking with care providers and other local organizations like SafeHouse of the Desert. They’re hoping to kick the project off right before the new school year so kids can have a new and more hopeful outlook on mental health.

More information: Find out more about We Are One United, including how to support its efforts, by going here:


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