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Brother Be Well: Helping Youth of Color Heal and Inspiring the Next Generation of Diverse Mental Health Providers

Joel Swazo finds his path to a mental health career through “In the Classroom,” a program sponsored by BlueSky.

By Beth Trimarco | This news story is also available in Spanish.

Joel Swazo
Joel Swazo

Joel Swazo is a student at Los Angeles City College. Once he graduates, he will likely pursue further education and go into the mental health care field. He wants to work with young people of color, leaning into his own experiences to provide culturally informed care. He credits Brother Be Well’s Into the Classroom program for both his career choice and for giving him the tools to manage his own mental health challenges. The program is funded by Blue Shield of California’s BlueSky youth mental health initiative.

When Swazo was a teen, he bounced around the foster care system. Like many foster youth, instability in his home life led to depression and anxiety.

“Once we were taken away from my parents, I had difficulty finding myself,” said Swazo. “Being male, you’re supposed to be strong and not show your emotions. I didn’t have the tools to manage, so I smoked a lot of marijuana.”

While at LA City College, Swazo came across an application for Brother Be Well, a multimedia platform for boys and men of color that aims to educate, heal, reduce disparities and improve mental health. He decided to get involved.

“The program opened my eyes that it’s okay to ask for guidance,” he said. “I realized there are so many young people of color struggling, and I saw how if I shared my story, I could make a difference.”

BlueSky-BIPOC youth-Infographic_FINAL

This year, Brother Be Well launched a video and podcast series called Into the Classroom. It’s designed for — and features — high school and college-aged students of all races and genders. Swazo is a regular contributor. Available to both teachers and students, the series focuses on advancing mental health awareness, reducing stigma and encouraging students to prioritize their mental health.

By featuring insightful clinicians and students of various cultures and genders, Into the Classroom helps create safe and inclusive spaces for open conversations, encouraging students to seek help without fear of judgment or shame.

Brother Be Well founder Kristene Smith, who launched Into the Classroom, said the inclusivity of the series has allowed youth to feel seen, heard and understood, fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance within educational communities. This is particularly important for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) youth.

“BIPOC students often face race-based traumatic stress, including systemic racism, discrimination, cultural barriers and limited access to resources,” said Smith. “The constant exposure to racial injustices, both in their personal lives and through mass media and social media, can also contribute to a sense of hopelessness and emotional distress.”

According to Swazo, although he had access to mental health care providers in the foster care system, they didn’t understand his experiences: “There were people who came with only certificates, but not lived experience. But when you’ve lived through the same things, you can form more genuine connections. That’s what brought me to Into the Classroom, and it’s why I want to work in mental health. I want to use my voice for the voiceless and people who have had hardships.”

Into the Classroom is not only having an enormous impact on the students who consume the videos and podcasts, it’s also inspiring a new generation of potential providers of color like Swazo who can advance greater equity in health care. The series is currently in five schools and expanding, and anyone can access the videos and presentation materials here.

Antoinette Mayer, Blue Shield of California’s vice president of Corporate Citizenship and co-founder of BlueSky, reinforced the importance of culturally competent care: “Equity in healthcare doesn’t just happen. We must be acutely focused on growing and supporting mental health providers who have a diversity of experiences. By investing in Brother Be Well, we are helping build a more inclusive and effective system for all.”