Next week, Mission Hospital Laguna Beach will expand its behavioral health services for the first time to include group therapy for teens and their parents, one of the first mental health programs for adolescents in south-county.
The five-week, after-school sessions that will initially be limited to 10 youth arrives as a welcome and much needed resource, says private practice psychologists and others involved with counseling teens.
The need for more mental health help could not be clearer. In the last year alone, four teens and two adults, all with ties to Laguna Beach, have taken their own lives. A workshop to sensitize students and parents to recognize the symptoms of depression that can lead to suicide took place in October on the high school campus.
“A lot of kids hide it; others act out,” said local Mary Herzog, a licensed psychologist in private practice with Laguna Family Therapy since 2008. “Each of those situations, it’s easy for parents to misunderstand.”
And too often parents refuse to seek professional help for troubled teens because they fear the stigma associated with mental health and feel they will be judged for poor parenting, said Herzog. “They don’t see that it can be nipped in the bud,” she said. With early intervention, youth gain perspective and tools to face problems that are common to everyone in a more effective manner than abusing drugs and alcohol, Herzog said.
“That’s what’s great about having it in our community,” she said of the new program. “There’s nothing like a group for them to not feel alone.”
The expansion of out-patient mental health services for youth in Laguna is the tip of a broader initiative to add behavioral health services at St. Joseph Health System facilities region wide, said Michael Beck, Mission Hospital’s vice president of operations.
Also envisioned is establishing in-patient beds for youth 13 to 18 with more severe psychiatric needs, which doesn’t exist anywhere in the county, Beck said. Mission plans such an expansion within the next few years in partnership with Children’s Hospital of Orange County. CHOC plans to open the county’s first in-patient wing for children under 13 needing psychiatric help by 2017, Beck said.
“It’s so long overdue,” he said. “The huge need we’ve known of for quite a while. It’s not unique to Laguna, sadly.”
Mission’s introduction to general psychiatric services began six years ago in acquiring the Laguna hospital, which had floors dedicated to treating adult psychiatric patients and another for adults with chemical dependency, Beck said. Now, “behavioral health is rising to one of the top priorities,” he said, where Laguna will serve as the hub.
One of the biggest challenges in offering adolescent mental health services are finding practitioners with skills that include resolving family friction as well as addiction, he said.
From an existing 18-person staff, including seven addiction specialists, four more staff psychologists will be added to provide services for youth 14 to 18, said Debbie Hutchinson, Mission’s manager of out-patient behavioral health services in Laguna.
They will guide three-hour group therapy sessions four days a week, Hutchinson said. “This is hard work,” she said. “We want to see them become functional members of society.” Parents will be expected to participate once a week, she said.
Participants will likely come from therapists, physicians and self-referral and bring a range of problems from self-harm to eating disorders and depression, she said.
An equally challenging task is outreach in schools and churches to reach resistant parents, who are understandably self-protective about their child’s mental health. “It’s half the battle,” she said. “The other half is working with a child to believe in themselves. We want to build these kids up. Turning a deaf ear isn’t going to change lives,” she said.
Susan Parmelee, who counsels students at the San Clemente High School Wellness Center, intends to recommend Mission’s services to families. “The current theory in treating mental health and addiction issues is to keep a child safe in the least restrictive environment. So, a program where a teen learns new skills along with parent education that both the child and the adult then take home and practice is a very good treatment model.”
Teen reports of symptoms of depression and anxiety have doubled in the past 30 years, Parmelee said, citing a study by the Nuffield Foundation of London. “We need to increase services to help these youth and their families treat these symptoms,” she said.
Beck ambitiously aims above even treating symptoms to promote prevention.
“It’s an achievable aim,” he said.