From “Drugging Our Kids” Doc, A Powerful Voice Emerges

Starting in August of 2014, San Jose Mercury News reporter Karen de Sá produced a five-part investigative series on the use of psychotropic drugs among California’s foster youth called Drugging Our Kids. Young Minds Advocacy Project (YMAP) followed the series closely over the coming months and, like other readers, we internally discussed the facts that it uncovered.

YMAP’s own Patrick Gardner was asked to share some of these insights as part of the series’ most potent and final act, a documentary film.

In 39 minutes, the film effectively brings us into the real lives of Karen de Sá’s subjects—former and current foster youth who were prescribed powerful medications and experienced severe side effects. We go into their homes, see their faces, and hear their voices as they remember a childhood in foster care while being on psychotropic medication.

The story behind the argument—that foster youths are over-medicated and under-served—is raw and emotional and stirring.

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On Thursday, March 26, I sat down in a crowded room with many other engaged community members to watch the documentary’s official screening at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. Karen de Sá and her photographer, Dai Sugano, shared some heartfelt words before the lights dimmed and we were reintroduced to the story we had started seven months prior.

The documentary’s authentic power came from the direct voices of foster youth sharing their personal stories. It was their platform to use as an amplifier, calling attention to an experience overlooked for far too long. It reminded me of how incredibly important it is to emphasize the narrative of our youth. After all, the issue of psychotropic drugs among foster youth is, fundamentally, theirs.

Sade Daniels, who appeared in the documentary to discuss the felt side-effects of her medications, sat among the panel. When she opened her mouth, we listened. The words that she spoke were electric and unifying and direct. She spoke as a former foster youth and an advocate. And her voice was the one that mattered most.

She began: “We [foster youth] didn’t know much about the themes of love, joy, or a better life. But we knew about prescriptions. We knew about diagnosis.

“This isn’t a new issue, rather one that we’re finally getting around to talking about….We owe our system’s dependent children so much more than what they’ve gotten. This series is merely the first step. This conversation is a critical one. We have the opportunity to right a detrimental wrong and create better practices that will support our foster youth.”

Sade’s impassioned narrative is a poignant reminder of how valuable her opinion is, and the opinions of other youth. Unfortunately, these opinions are often squelched within the arena of policy and politics and budget and red tape. All of the bureaucratic clamor overrides the essence of what truly matters, the reason why we all jumped into this fight in the first place: the youth.

Youth, like Sade, must be engaged in the conversations about policies and programs that affect them. Not only should they be brought to the forefront of the discussion, they should be given the opportunity to lead it. It’s our job—as experts, as authorities, as adults, as people—to amplify their voices and truly listen to their solutions.

CLICK HERE to hear more from Sade Daniels at the “Drugging Our Kids” release.

Helen Seely is the communications coordinator at Young Minds Advocacy Project, a California-based group that advocates for appropriate mental health services for low-income children and adolescents.

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Young Minds Advocacy is a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, California that uses strategic advocacy and communications to help youths and their families to access mental health services and supports, and improve mental health system performance and accountability.