City Beat

Sacramento mayor calls on mental health workers to volunteer in black communities

Earlier this month, Stacy Dossman stood at a podium in front of the Sacramento City Council and, her voice quivering, testified about her experience of raising an 18-year-old African American son.

She did not know Stephon Clark, but she said she loved him nonetheless as the mother of a young black man. She said she was traumatized by Clark’s shooting, which had forced her to tell her son to lower the hood on his sweatshirt when he drives and to “just drop” to the ground if he’s confronted by police.

“I’m angry and I’m hurt,” Dossman told the City Council. “I’ve been reliving what I saw on that tape (showing Clark’s shooting) over and over and over again.”

Emotions have been high in Meadowview and at Sacramento City Council meetings since police officers shot and killed Clark in his grandparents’ backyard March 18. Many people have expressed anger. But the shooting has also renewed feelings of suffering and anguish among the city's African American population.

As Mayor Darrell Steinberg and the city push to invest more money in low-income neighborhoods after the Clark shooting, the mayor is launching a new initiative: he is calling on mental health professionals from the Sacramento region to donate their time and services in Meadowview and other neighborhoods of color.

"What I have been seeing and experiencing at our City Council meetings and out in the community is raw pain and trauma," Steinberg said. "But what's important to recognize is that while the Stephon Clark shooting has been a catalyst for elevating this conversation, it's not a new issue. Especially in low-income communities, exposure to violence, systemic poverty, domestic violence, these issues have profound impacts on people, especially kids.

"In Sacramento, we are experiencing this in a heightened way over the last month."

Steinberg, community leaders, mental health service providers and school representatives met at Luther Burbank High School in Meadowview on Saturday to begin organizing an outreach effort. The mayor is hoping the response from the mental health community is big.

"There are undoubtedly thousands (of mental health workers) in the Sacramento region," he said. "If each donated 10 hours of their time, think about the magnitude of help we could give to people."

Steinberg founded the Steinberg Institute, which works to improve mental health services around the state, and as a state senator wrote the Mental Health Services Act of 2004, which uses a tax on millionaires to fund mental health service programs. He said "this has been maybe the most important part of my life's work - and now it's front and center in my community."

Clark’s brother, Stevante Clark, has been public about his own battle. At an April 10 City Council meeting, Clark told the council and the public, “I have mental health issues.”

The mayor responded, “Nothing to be ashamed of there, Stevante.”

Clark, 25, was arrested this week on felony suspicion of threatening to commit a crime and assault with a deadly weapon, as well as misdemeanor counts of vandalism and calling 911 to harass or annoy. One relative, Sonia Lewis, said she was concerned that Clark was jailed Thursday instead of placed in a mental health facility.

Before counselors provide help, they will undergo cultural sensitivity training that will prepare them to work specifically with the African American community, Steinberg said.

Dr. Kristee Haggins, a psychologist who specializes in African American mental health issues, will help train counselors to be sensitive to the needs of the black community. Haggins said a 2017 study by the nonprofit RAND Corporation showed just half of African Americans surveyed in California would recommend mental health treatment to other African Americans and that many said they would have received better care if they were a different race.

With that in mind, Haggins said it is vital that counselors have "cultural humility" before they begin providing care in the African American community.

"Having that humility is very important anytime we're trying to help someone to connect with who they are and all of their dimensions, in terms of their race, sexual orientation, they're religious beliefs," Haggins said. "The responses people are having to the killing of Stephon Clark, these are broad, systemic reactions. I think what we are seeing and what is showing itself from the African American community are the residuals of the legacy of slavery, of oppression, of laws and policies that have historically been put in place that have disadvantaged us on purpose."

Haggins said personal reactions - like the one expressed by Dossman - are typical.

"There's a fear that when this happens in your own backyard, in your grandmother's backyard, in your neighborhood, that it could be me, that could be me that happened to, that could be someone that I love," she said.

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