We often begin our meetings with clients the same way. “What do you think of when you hear the term ‘mental health’?’” We ask.
Each young person’s eyes widen, roll up to the ceiling, or drop to the floor, remembering one of mental health’s ugly stereotypes. “Someone who is crazy,” many say.
“Actually,” we remind them, “everyone has mental health — it’s your thoughts and your feelings. If you have thoughts and feelings, mental health pertains to you, too.” Suddenly the conversation takes a turn, and mental health becomes a relevant and accessible issue.
Second Story values a holistic perspective to helping young people grow and thrive — we provide safe shelter and opportunity, but we also teach young people self-sufficiency and how to break out of whatever cycles have driven them to their lowest point. Mental health naturally plays a role, so we checked in with our clinical director, Susie, to learn more.
Q: Why is it important to address mental health?
Susie: A lot of the young people in our programs have things happening in their lives that inevitably affect their mental health, their thoughts and feelings, regardless of whether they have a diagnosable issue.
Imagine you got into a car crash and broke your leg but never went to the doctor. You would be in tremendous pain. It would affect your mood, your emotions — everything. We would never think to ignore a physical injury, but we often do this very thing in regards to mental health. Oftentimes these young people have experienced trauma through homelessness, abandonment, or some other horrifying circumstance. This trauma is devastating for their thoughts and feelings. The consequence is not a physical concern but a sort of mental one, and it is imperative that we address this. If you don’t have healthy mental health then your functioning can be impaired in other areas.
Q: How does Second Story assess and then promote strong mental health for the youth in its programs?
Susie: Mental health counseling is an important part of our work. Young people in Second Story for Teens in Crisis attend group and individual counseling everyday, Second Story for Young Mothers attends two group counseling sessions and one individual counseling session each week, and Second Story for Homeless Youth has counseling available to them as well.
Residents at the shelter receive a variety of therapeutic services including assessments and individual, group, and family counseling. We ask the young people to allow us to get to know them better and reflect on something they would like to change. Through group and individual counseling sessions, we walk alongside them as they work to address this specific area of their life. Morning group counseling is focused on character development, such as leadership skills, and evening group counseling is psychoeducational, covering topics such as social skills and anger management.
During the first 72 hours of their stay, a bio-psycho-social assessment is completed. “Bio” means what is going on with your body, “psycho” refers to how one is coping mentally and emotionally, and “social” is your interactions with your family, friends, academics, your peer group, etc. Addressing one area can improve the health of the whole person. We also administer the Children’s Depression Inventory and Multi-Anxiety Scale for Children.
Finally, we create a transition plan for teen shelter residents, providing referrals and community based resources. If we suspect they are struggling with mental illness we refer them to further services. We also educate parents on mental health to foster empathy within the family.
Q: What if a young person isn’t interested in mental health counseling?
Susie: We work to understand what they are going through — trauma affects their relationships, and we want to ensure that their defenses don’t affect whether they get assistance. Sometimes offering help makes it seem like they aren’t good enough, that they can’t handle it, that there is something wrong with them, which is untrue and degrading.
We are careful with our language. If a young person says, “I don’t need help,” we might respond with, “you’re right…what is it that you want to accomplish?” We remind them that we are here to help them change whatever it is in their life they want to change, rather than trying to fix problems.
We turn it back to them and remind them it is all about the “self” — self-efficacy, self-perception, self-esteem, self-control, self-discipline, self-reliance. There are external pressures, but what are their rules for themselves?
Q: What happens if a young person in Second Story’s program has a mental illness and needs further assistance?
Susie: We aren’t the be-all-end-all. We know our role during this difficult time in a young person’s life and we provide a pathway to other services. If they don’t find the services they need, problems will persist.
We partner with Merrifield Community Service’s Board for evaluations or intensive services and refer suicidal clients to Dominion Hospital or other psychiatric settings. Even if a client doesn’t have a mental illness but has experienced severe trauma, such as sexual abuse, we refer them to further services.
A lot of our clients do have diagnosable mental health conditions, and it is important to get them the help and resources they need. This underlying issue, if unaddressed, will inevitably affect every aspect of their lives. In turn, once they receive proper services, they will be more equipped to succeed.
Second Story steps in at critical moments to meet young people where they are. By addressing the whole person, not only where they’re sleeping at night but how they’re responding emotionally and mentally to difficult circumstances, we’re helping empower and support young people so that they can write their own second story.