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On Mental Health With Dr. Deidra Somerville

Deidra Somerville is a mother, activist, scholar, healer, and now the first Executive Director of the YMCA of San Francisco’s Mental Health Services Branch, the first of its kind in the nation for the YMCA that is centralized in the South Bay. Because the Y understands how important mental health is, we wanted someone to lead the initiatives that will support the needs of the communities we serve.

Dr. Somerville is a proud graduate of the University of California Santa Cruz with a double BA in Sociology and Political Science, she earned her Master of Social Work in Human Resources Management from Boston University, and her PhD in Community Psychology at National Louis University. Her work as executive director of Alchemy Community Therapy Center served as preparation for her transition to her current role at YSF. Alchemy Community Therapy Center is the only non-profit community-based mental health center dedicated to providing psychedelic-assisted therapy on a sliding fee scale to low-income, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ populations. As a lifelong learner, Dr. Somerville carries her interests into the veins of her approaches to organizational development, leadership, organizing, and her work as a healer.

Here’s a closer look at her role and work: 

Can you please describe your role and what you do, and dive a little deeper into speaking on some of the mental health community programs that the Y has?

We have a team of about 55 clinicians and administrators, all dedicated to working in the clinics that we run, school programs, programs with the Department of Public Health and police department in San Francisco and San Mateo counties, and our Community Resource Center (CRC) that provides different forms of assistance to populations in San Bruno, Brisbane, and South San Francisco. We provide rental assistance, food distribution, car repair assistance, and outreach efforts to those communities and help people navigate a lot of systems that are often hostile to those who don’t speak English and more. 

We also have a program that we launched last year called the Behavior Champion Initiative which provides training, resources, and crisis support to youth development staff at Y branches throughout San Francisco and the Peninsula.

Why do you think it’s important to address mental health at this moment? Before the ongoing pandemic, there has always been a stigma around talking about mental health and so, do you think there’s been a shift in how people view and address it?

Yes and no. I think, in one sense, people are aware there is a problem. They are aware that people are hurting and have been isolated, particularly our youth who have lost a lot of opportunities to learn socialization behaviors, interpersonal and emotional regulation skills. They’ve lost very critical years of development. The schools are presently equipped with new wellness centers but still don’t have the capacity to address the challenges that affect social and emotional learning and functioning in classroom settings. We have seen and learned that youth are wearing their N95 masks because they don’t want people to see their faces and it has nothing to do with catching COVID. Some of them are unsure about people even looking at them anymore and that is how much pain they are in.

There are a lot of unanswered questions and concerns these youth had that their parents were not able to answer because they were spiraling too. Parents would ask them, “Okay, are you doing your homework? Are you doing this? Are you doing that?” without even understanding how being isolated in a room looking at a screen all day for classes and less involved with their teachers and fellow students, who were often a big part of their social lives, had affected their capacity to learn and understand how to learn. These things are affecting how they show up in the classroom, in our settings at the Y, in their homes and communities, etc.

We have a lot of catching up to do and our team has been navigating between explaining that mental health is not just isolated to people having a diagnosis that needs to be treated and translating it into every facet of how we interact with one another. Also, a part of it and why I think CRCs are so important, is how do we get people to treatment? What are they getting first? Are they getting their basic needs met? These things affect stressors that adults experience while the youth, in turn, experience them through their parents and guardians. They are interconnected and for us, taking the whole lens of community mental health into context is super important instead of isolating it to an individual who might experience depression or however we might want to categorize that experience with that person. Looking at the whole person is what I advocate for and what I think our team is set up to do.

What are some of the barriers or challenges your team may be facing when helping our communities?

We are a new branch and just now developing new relationships with funders. We are looking for ongoing support to make sure we can stay at the level of operations that we started with. One thing that has been critical for us is the fact that we keep talking about a shortage of therapists, but we have never had enough – it is just that the issue received public acknowledgment which has taken the lid off the problem that has always been there. 

We see this, particularly with people who speak Cantonese, Spanish, Mandarin, Creole, Portuguese, etc., who have been in our communities and need the support however, there are not enough therapists with those backgrounds and lived experiences, shared understandings, and a cultural lens of humility from the perspective of those communities. This makes it difficult for them in therapy to feel like they have somebody whom they do not need to code-switch with as a client because they are afraid their clinician does not understand. We do not want our clients and community members to labor that way. We want them to have an experience where they feel, as an example, that their orientation is LGBTQIA+ or if they come from a background that is bi-cultural or not dominant, we want to make sure that those people do not have to do any labor when they come to therapy. They just receive what they need.

It is incumbent upon us to make sure that we train people from those communities so that we do not further burden those who are already burdened enough. Right now, in our training program, we bring on trainees from graduate schools in social work, professional counseling, and more from all over Northern California and the Bay Area to participate. We provide opportunities for pre-licensed folks with graduate-level experience to get clinical hours toward licensure, so it broadens opportunities for our capacity to serve our communities.

Is there a key moment that paved your path towards mental health?

If we look at the whole self and my journey through my work and career, then I have worked in public housing, youth development, higher education, and schools for years so I have all those different experiences in working with different communities. My lens is also informed through my work as a community organizer and orientation towards liberation-based healing and a decolonized lens as well. These are the things that have informed my career and journey, which is to try to support and build systems that reflect the needs of the communities through those lenses that are human-centered, decolonized, anti-racist, and centering the liberation of people

What are some of your goals for addressing mental health issues overall? What do you hope to see for the future of the Y and our communities in the Bay Area?

I think my goal is for everyone to appreciate the hard work that our clinicians and case managers are doing to manage many tough relationships and situations in this work in the Bay Area. It is not easy doing this work here because there are a lot of policy concerns, wage equity concerns, dynamics within school systems, etc. and so a lot of our therapists and administrators are navigating a lot of choppy waters right now in terms of what is happening in our communities. So, I say big ups to them – I appreciate, applaud, salute, and support them, and I hope we all learn as much as we can about the needs of our communities together so that we can understand from the lens of those folks and their perspective on what those needs are.

I lead with a love ethic and from a human-centered lens, and anything that I do has to reflect and direct itself toward that - these are my north stars. That is what I hope that we do – to build a community where folks can create, love, and serve one another, as in the words of Grace Lee Boggs

To learn more about our Mental Health Services Branch, visit our page