Through the Camera’s Lens: Photovoice Project in San Mateo Raises Awareness about Drug Use

May was Mental Health Awareness Month. For YLI youth leaders, it was a time not only to encourage vulnerable communities to access and practice preventative mental health services, but also to dig deeper and talk about how mental health services for substance use can be improved. Youth in Half Moon Bay and Pescadero embarked on a photovoice project, a qualitative research method that fosters analysis of the types of environments that influence substance use, to uncover social norms that exist in their communities.

Armed with a critical eye and a camera, the youth toured their cities, snapping photos and dialoguing with community members about the issue, their project, and the solutions the community could work toward together. The photos they took capture a simple, brutal reality: drugs are easily accessible, and this has the affect of normalizing substance abuse. For vulnerable low-income, immigrant and uninsured youth and families who have less access to quality mental health services, substance use can quickly become a vicious cycle.

The youth created posters to share their powerful images, their reflections on what these images represent, and their innovative, community-rooted solutions to the issues. 

The next step was to organize a series of community events to display their work. The goal of these events would be to spark conversations about mental health, mental illness, the signs and symptoms that young people should be aware of in order to prevent the use of drugs as a coping mechanism, and what schools and other institutions can do to create change. The Mental Health Kick-Off event in Half Moon Bay, was the first of these. YLI youth leaders presented their findings and recommendations in both English and Spanish. The event was well-attended and enthusiastically received by the local community — a true testament to the need to break the stigma around accessing mental health services in the Coastside.

At the annual Youth Summit at Cunha Middle School in Half Moon Bay, hundreds of middle schoolers spent the day learning about the impacts of alcohol and other drugs through interactive activities and powerful speakers. Our partner Puente de la Costa Sur was part of the planning committee and insured that there was a space for our Photo Voice project. Youth leaders from Pescadero made candies with positive and affirming messages for middle schoolers and engaged middle schoolers in conversation before they took a look at the project.

The next stop was the Pescadero farmer’s market — a weekly event that models what a healthy community should look like: an abundanceof healthy foods, fewer locations to acquire alcohol and other drugs, accessible mental health services, and opportunities for youth and other community members to develop leadership skills.

The final step will be to showcase the photovoice project at the Hall of Justice in San Mateo County, where county staff and elected officials convene. The building receives high foot traffic, and the photovoice display will be a great addition to their walls since it represents the findings and recommendations of youth leaders from District 3. The display, featured below, will be installed in November of this year.

Photovoice Gallery

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