To educate students about the mental health of the homeless population during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fremont Mental Health Organization (FMHO) held a virtual Homeless Mental Health Panel from 5-6:30 p.m. on November 13.
The event featured guest speakers from different career fields, such as psychology, nursing, and substance abuse guidance, who spoke about their careers and their work related to mental health and homelessness.
Following a brief presentation about the organization from FMHO President and Founder Senior Neha Gondra, the club officers led a discussion about mental health and its effect on the homeless community with panel members and student attendees in a Q&A format.
The Homeless Mental Health Panel is the largest event the FMHO has organized since their inception in 2018, with a total of 30 participants on Zoom. “This is the biggest turnout we’ve [ever] had. I’m really grateful for that,” FMHO Secretary Mountain House High School Senior Pranathi Kolavennu said. 
The officer team decided to focus on homeless mental health specifically for this panel because of the lack of student awareness on this topic. “We wanted to do something different. We thought about who might be the most affected by [the pandemic], and we thought we [should] probably cover homeless people,” FMHO Vice President Senior Ashley Wong said.
Many of the panelists stressed the stigmas surrounding homelessness and mental health. In 2019, 39% of Alameda County’s homeless population reported dealing with severe psychiatric or emotional mental health conditions, a statistic that several panelists cited in response to a question about the importance of focusing specifically on homeless mental health. “[These people] have to deal with a double stigma around being homeless and having a mental health diagnosis. Both can be viewed as personal failure instead of a medical diagnosis,” Health Care Services Agency licensed social worker Schalon Woods said.
“[These people] have to deal with a double stigma around being homeless and having a mental health diagnosis. Both can be viewed as personal failure instead of a medical diagnosis.”
Other speakers emphasized the need for mental health support and advocacy for the homeless community. Bay Area Community Services Chief Program Officer Jovan Yglecias mentioned several Bay Area initiatives that students can get involved with through volunteer work.
In particular, the Alameda County’s Rapid Re-housing Program assists homeless people in finding transitional housing, and the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS Program is an initiative dedicated to creating affordable housing for people living with HIV and AIDS.
After the discussion, the panelists engaged in a live Q&A session about the intersection of the medical field and social reform, where they echoed the importance of having students from minority backgrounds and historically marginalized groups go into the medical field. Yglecias said, “[Having] a care provider who looks like and represents the community that you’re from sitting across from you can be life-changing. We really need to diversify our community of care workers and this is certainly an impetus to get involved.”
Gondra initially founded the FMHO in 2018 because of the lack of resources and discussion surrounding mental health in the Fremont community. “I [felt] like there was not a lot of interest in the community regarding mental health. It just seemed like this topic that people didn’t really want to talk about or weren’t really interested in addressing,” she said.
Since then, the FMHO has held several smaller-scale events with guest speakers in the medical field on topics such as female and teenage mental health, as well as their Fremont Mental Health Stress Workshop at the Fremont Main Library last year. Over the summer, they also organized a service event where students assembled care packages that were donated to Second Chance, Inc., a substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation center in Newark.
While the FMHO does not have any more events planned for the near future, they hope to host more interactive virtual events and continue to update their podcast and blog to inform students about the importance of prioritizing mental health. “We need to shift from the view that people with mental illnesses put themselves in that position … and be more understanding of how mental health is an issue that affects us all,” Gondra said.
Cover graphic by News Editor Alina Zeng