In 2019, gun-related deaths surpassed motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death for people 19 and younger, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
“We’re finding that a number of youth are committing crimes with weapons, hate crimes, as well as self-harm, like suicide, because they’re having some mental health challenges,” said Wally Webster II, who has lived in Lynnwood for 46 years. “Many of these challenges, when I was growing up, I didn’t face, or at least didn’t’ recognize. And if we recognized, we at least didn’t act out the way some kids are acting out.”
Through participation in several local organizations — including the Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team (SMART) and the City of Lynnwood’s Chief of Police Advisory Committee — Webster has seen this violence first-hand.
“I see it, and I’m just concerned about it and decided to pool the community together to do something,” he said.
With participation from a range of community leaders — including the mayors of Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood — the ACCESS project was born. ACCESS stands for the Association of Collective Community Engagement for Safety and Security. The project hopes to address some of the root causes of youth violence, as well as fill gaps in how it is handled.
One of the project’s main goals is to increase communication among existing resources for youth in Snohomish County.
“In talking to people throughout the community, I found that there are excellent, well-organized, effective organizations, but they work in silos,” Webster said. “They worry about what they do, and if they get a kid that needs several things to address their different problems, they work on their own, and then let the kid go and find the other two or three [organizations] themselves.”
Thus, the ACCESS project plans to act as the facilitator between individuals and these groups. Youth will be able to self-refer to the project or be referred from within Edmonds School District. Once a youth is registered, an on-call counselor will do an initial assessment of their needs, holistically, ensuring that they are connected with the organizations or government entities that can most appropriately help them.
“So our strategy is to bring together these organizations to provide these services. And the ACCESS project is not intended to duplicate any organization. We don’t provide mental health services, we are connectors,” Webster said.
Additionally, Webster hopes to recruit young people themselves as partners of the organization. “We want to identify, initially, about five students in each high school and give them the training and to listen to their peers and have conversations with their peers, because we feel that they understand a lot of the root causes that their peers are going through,” Webster said.
In partnership with Edmonds College, these high school students will receive the necessary training to identify when one of their peers is experiencing mental health indicators and may benefit from a referral to ACCESS.
Some of these indicators include feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. According to the biannual Healthy Youth Survey administered by the State of Washington, 31% of eighth graders and 44% of 12th graders reported “feeling so hopeless or sad for two weeks or more that they stopped doing daily activities.”
Additionally, 9% of eighth graders and 16% of 12th graders said they felt they had no adult to turn to when feeling this way.
Webster sees a strong connection between these early signs of mental health distress in youth and the more serious consequences of mental health issues in adulthood, including drug use.
“The kid who is feeling like they’d commit suicide because they don’t have any reason to live, I’m not able to connect that with the number of deaths from opioids, because those are adults that are not in school,” Webster said. “But we have been able to see that those were youth and kids at one time also, and they have carried these same problems from the youth phase of life to the young adult phase of life. If we can catch this and interdict these issues — feeling sad, helpless, no adult to talk to, nobody to turn to — thaen we can hopefully prevent some of the major things that come later.”
Webster is hoping to create a system to maintain communication with the youths registered with ACCESS for up to two years after they complete any treatment they receive.
“We want to track that student to the extent that we possibly can, to see if they’ve had any kinds of issues within two years after they have been released from us,” Webster said. “That’s how we have defined successful for helping that particular student.”
The ACCESS project is still in its early stages, and recently submitted paperwork for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. The project is seeking funding from local, state and private sources. For now, it is only looking to operate in South Snohomish County and the Edmonds School District.
Webster recently presented the project to the City of Lynnwood’s Cops and Clergy program. By partnering with the law enforcement and faith communities, he is hoping to expand opportunities for referrals and resources for future ACCESS project beneficiaries.
“We are trying to focus on South County. We won’t want to put more on our plate that we can say grace over,” Webster said. “Once we learn and have some experiences, we can scale up.”
–– By Mardy Harding