A space designed by youth, for youth

By Tanisha Mehta

I recently visited allcove, another incredible youth wellness center, located in Palo Alto.

The allcove centers are a place for youth to access a variety of emotional, physical and social support services, and are designed to adapt to the young person's individual comfort zone. The allcove model was developed by Stanford Medicine faculty members and staff, who also assisted in the implementation of these centers. allcove's mission is to develop a network of integrated youth mental health centers that reduce stigma, embrace mental wellness, increase community connection, and provide access to culturally-responsive services.

In addition to visiting the center and personally experiencing the fantastic environment allcove provides for youth, I had the opportunity to actually interview a member of the allcove Palo Alto team, Duy Nguyen, the center manager. 

Check out the transcript for my interview with Duy, as well as some pictures of the allcove center in Palo Alto, below:

In your view, what do you believe mental health is?


"I believe that mental health is taking care of your mind, body, and soul. It’s a holistic approach to managing your health that focuses on the totality of your wellness."


Why do you believe mental health is so important?


"I think mental health is really important because it’s one of the core pillars of our overall wellness. Everyone looks at physical health, but I think mental health is just as important, same with our spiritual health. I think it’s one of our pieces that is most neglected by people because it is the most misunderstood. 

So many of our physical elements are connected to our mental health, so I think it is really important that we focus on that, as one of the approaches we take when looking at our overall wellness."

Do you think mental health is taboo? Is there still a considerable amount of stigma against mental health? 


"Yes, I still do think there is a considerable amount of taboo and stigma around mental health, especially among certain populations and communities, even in mainstream society. I think it’s still misunderstood, and I think a lot of people see what they see on T.V. and think that’s what mental health is. 

I think there are still a lot of families and cultures that don’t fully understand mental health and what mental health services entail. I also think there’s a lot of labeling, like if you’re going to take care of mental health, you’re crazy or weak. It’s still there, but I do think it’s improving. I see that more and more people are open to mental health, and I think part of that is because the younger generation is open. They’re understanding how important mental health is."


Do you believe it is still very difficult for many children to access mental health services?


"Yes, I would say it’s still fairly difficult. It can be especially difficult depending on the type of insurance you have, because of our insurance system and because the state is so fragmented. There’s so many different types of companies, mental health service providers are so impacted, and there is a shortage of mental health service providers.

It is really difficult for a young person to be like hey let me go and call someone up and start mental health services. It’s really difficult for them to walk into a center and feel welcome or feel like it is a safe space. 

There’s not a lot of places like allcove. Most mental health facilities are clinic or medical looking buildings, and I think sometimes it’s hard for young people to learn and make that connection. I don’t think they even know where to look, and I think part of that is systemically and part of that is their own culture, and culture of how people view mental health services. Also, with a therapist sometimes you have to get on the waitlist, or you need to get referred, or you have to go through all different types of steps just to get services."

Why do you believe wellness centers are so crucial for not just kids struggling with their mental health, but also the community as a whole? 

"If you look at any of the studies some of the cost, the healthcare cost, is because of a lot of people, for not just mental health but physical health; when someone is severely ill, it leads to cost for society and organizations. 

So a center like this, which really focuses on holistic prevention and tries to get young people into the door as soon as they’re experiencing mental health, I think that’s going to support the community overall because now less resources are spent on addressing someone who is severely ill or someone who is suicidal and now has to be hospitalized, versus someone who came in feeling depressed or anxious and was able to address that right away. 

So the differences in cost, down the line and in the long run, are much less. What we are doing, when these centers are opening up, focusing on early intervention and prevention, I think that’s just going to do a lot of good for the community. And it’s going to reduce the human financial cost of any future problems down the line."

Is there still much stigma surrounding facilities providing mental health services, like wellness centers?


"I think so. I think a lot of people who have never experienced allcove will go to a wellness center and maybe think of it as a very clinical or medical space. Someone might not also know what to expect; it might just be a building with many offices. 

I think it’s also true of wellness centers at schools. When they have a wellness center at school and a youth is going there, people are like look at that person going to the wellness center, you know they’re dealing with some mental issue, some problem. So I definitely think we’ve still got stigma. 

That is why we are developing places like allcove, to have a confidential and safe space for people to just be able to come and be themselves, and engage in their own wellness at their own pace and level. Someone who comes here doesn’t need to actually meet a therapist. They can start off with our peer support counselors, in our groups, or doing workshops. And then maybe down the line they’re like you know what this isn’t so bad, and they might meet with a therapist at that point. But overall there’s just no pressure here at allcove." 


Do you believe there is still a significant lack of awareness and urgency for these centers?


"Yes, I would think so. But the tide is definitely turning, and there is more support behind opening more allcoves. There are a few allcoves opening in the Bay Area, and I think there is another one opening in San Mateo county soon, later this year. I think there’s one that is in Southern California already open. And there are a couple more that we plan to open. So I definitely think that there is the support for it. 

But again, that’s just 4 or 5 centers in the entire state of California, which is probably the most populous state in the country."

If you had to describe wellness centers in one word, what would that be?




Can you tell me a little bit about allcove’s outlook and approach in helping kids struggling with their mental health?


"I believe allcove’s outlook is very positive; it is a no pressure, non-clinical, and very innovative and youth-friendly approach. All allcove centers are designed by youth for youth. They pick out furniture, support us with developing programs, and are even on interview panels for the staff. So basically the youth are hiring the staff, deciding if that is someone with whom a young person could connect.   

That is the allcove approach, to really use youth voice and to insure that these programs are culturally appropriate, as in the past, they haven’t always been. Therapeutic standards or approaches have not been designed by young people of color or marginalized groups, so I think we definitely take an inclusive, culturally appropriate approach."

What has allcove meant to you and all those who are a part of this center?


"I think allcove has just been a really great opportunity for everyone that’s been involved to really grow in the field. One of the biggest concerns that we have in the mental health field is the lack of mental health providers. So I think having an environment like this, that is sustainable, enjoyable, meaningful, and even just fun to work at, I think that is going to help support future mental health providers in the world.

I would definitely say people who come here end up moving on to bigger and better opportunities, which is what we want to see, especially when they’re using their talents and skills to better the mental health field. So I definitely think that’s a big component of it. 

It has also been an opportunity to rethink what mental health is going to look like for young people and for the future, just be able to be innovative, try new things, look at things differently, and try different approaches to address some of the barriers people are seeing when it comes to their mental health."


What do you think is the best way to engage in mental health activism and awareness, and educate others on the immense value and necessity of wellness centers?


"I think ultimately it goes back to using youth voice. I think having another young person being the one who advocates for a center and for their own mental health, and shares about their own struggles with mental health and about their own services. That’s when another young person is going to hear that, especially if someone is really, truly out there advocating, and go like oh wow that person looks like me, or this person acts like me, and they’re out there working on their mental health. That’s going to make a big difference. 

We ask people how did you hear about allcove, and they say through word of mouth. So we really rely on young people to be like hey I went to allcove and it was great, I met with so and so and they were great, I did this at allcove and that was great. These are the things we’re hoping to get out more into the community. 

So we hope that more and more young people, as they come to the center and experience the center, will really go out there and share their experience, talk about it, and advocate. And not just allcove, it could be any mental health facility. If they had a great experience, I would encourage them to share it with whoever they know."

Is there anything else you would like the readers to know about mental health or allcove? What is the main message of allcove?


"I think for allcove, again it’s about having a youth-friendly voice, or space that has been designed by young people for young people. I think that’s probably the core or the crux, the thing I say the most, because we want young people to know that they were involved in developing the center, that it wasn’t just a bunch of older PhD students sitting in a room doing some research, it was actual real-life youth from our community that came in and designed our center to make it a safe-space. 

We encourage any youth to come and check out our space. You don’t have to talk with a therapist, you can talk with our peer-support specialist, you can talk with our nurse or doctor, just anyone here to get yourself introduced to and acquainted with the allcove center, and to see all the services we provide. 

You can hop in on one of our workshops as well. You can connect and engage with us at whichever comfort level you’re at, and if that means that you end up working more on your mental health that’s great, or if that’s all you need and you’re ready to go that’s great too. But we’re open and we’re ready to serve the community."