Vietnamese Youth Development Center Launches New Mental-Health 'Hangouts' Program

Vietnamese Youth Development Center Launches New Mental-Health 'Hangouts' Program
Photos: Blair Czarecki/Hoodline
By Blair Czarecki - Published on October 08, 2015.

On August 28th, the Vietnamese Youth Development Center (166 Eddy St.) reintroduced a neighborhood program, "Friday Hangouts," that aims to provide a safe haven for Tenderloin youth. Running Fridays from 3-6pm, the "Hangouts" offer fun activities like a pool table, games, movies, and arts and crafts. But the VYDC also hopes that they will encourage kids to partake in mental-health counseling through its new Southeast Asian Mental Health Initiative (SEAMHI), which it's piloting in conjunction with Friday Hangouts. 

“The Friday hangout will not only help [youth] engage in activities that can promote stress reduction and peer bonding, but will act as a safe place for them to congregate,” says Shychai Douangsawang, project coordinator for VYDC. “There are a lot of kids in the TL that need a place to hang out and meet other kids in our neighborhood. From there, hopefully they're drawn to one of our services here.”

Douangsawang says that SEAMHI was designed and funded based on clear community need, but convincing Tenderloin youth to participate has been a struggle. “There is a stigma attached to it. You go to any high school and you talk to a kids about needing mental services, and they say, 'No I don’t, I’m not crazy.' But it’s not just about that. It’s also stress, depression—these are things that the teenagers go through. The program focuses on identifying how mental-health issues develop in our teens, and discussing and brainstorming possible coping mechanisms." 

Sai plays pool with a VYDC Youth participant.

The need for counseling in the Southeast Asian community is a real one. “PTSD is a common mental health condition that many of these families and youth face, as a result of the [Vietnam] War,” says Douangsawang.

Living in the Tenderloin can also be a trigger. "You have a kid from the Tenderloin going to Lowell [High School] because they are really gifted, but then they meet these kids from Lowell who are from well-structured homes," Douangsawang notes. "This can cause isolation. You can become depressed because your family doesn’t have what their families have; you can get angry because you are frustrated."

While the VYDC was founded by Vietnamese refugees who saw a need for services for the southeast Asian community, its programs are open to all ethnic groups. Since 1978, VYDC has offered programs for 18-24 year olds and youth workforce development programs, among other initiatives. 

Youth program space at VYDC.

Douangsawang, a Richmond native, has over seven years of experience working in the mental health field, including four years at Seneca, working with at-risk youth going through the juvenile probation system“A lot of kids need validation, they need someone to talk to," he says. "They just need to find a person to connect with. Everybody has a story to tell, and when you tell your story, you feel good, because you are validating yourself. I think that’s what a lot of kids need—they need that expression.”

Bringing in fun activities can provide a bridge to youth who might feel uncomfortable expressing themselves. "Kids are into music; kids are into arts; kids are into sports,"says Douangsawang. "Our program is about incorporating those everyday activities, helping [youth] realize that they are a means of stress reduction, and encouraging them to use them as a coping mechanism. “That’s what the kids need. I think that’s the main thing—for them to just have fun.” 

"I think that the best way just to [support youth] is to identify their interests and their strengths," he continues. "You can always incorporate their strengths into something that they can work on, to deal with whatever stress they are going through."