By Jay Thorwaldson
On Deadline blog: Does upsurge in teen-distress referrals mean 'stigma' barrier is dropping?Uploaded: Sep 29, 2012
There is a continuing upsurge in referrals of young persons to counselors to help with some form of emotional distress, stress or other difficult challenge, according to the Adolescent Counseling Service.
While based in Palo Alto, ACS for decades has been a leading service covering both northern Santa Clara and southern San Mateo county -- helping guide adolescents and their families through difficult times in their individual and family lives. (See www.acs-teens.org/ for full range of services and contact information.)
But also for decades there has been almost a hand-wringing concern about how to get the word to young persons that it's OK to seek guidance when they feel sad, depressed, confused or angry at the world. There has been concern about how best to inspire parents, teachers and school officials to recognize kids in distress and make referrals.
The "stigma" of seeking help reflects a fear of appearing weak or even the dread "mentally ill." Yet it often takes courage to ask for help when one needs it -- for people of any age, actually -- and seeking help when needed for emotional distress is one of the sanest acts around.
ACS Executive Director Philippe Rey and several key staff members reported at a Sept. 24 Board of Advisors meeting that in the past year ACS' trained counselors saw 4,394 teens and family members and held 7,241 individual and family-group sessions -- a 5 percent increase.
There was a 25 percent increase in parents referring their children, aged 9 to 18. That relatively huge increase was on top of a 38 percent increase in parent referrals the year before, Rey reported.
"We have done a lot of work on breaking the stigma of mental illness," Rey noted, indicating he believes that may be having a significant effect -- rather than an alternative scenario of there being more young persons in trouble. The tragedies of the cluster of teen deaths in Palo Alto also deeply sensitized both the community as a whole, parents, school officials, community-based organizations and teens themselves.
The collaboration of "Project Safety Net" -- which met last week -- is evolving from a crisis-mode intervention effort to a broader program of fostering "youth well-being" and a stronger sense of connectedness to schools, peers, families and the community as a whole. While there have been other periods when the well-being of young persons has been a topic of community dialogue, this one seems to have more staying power and determined participants.
ACS is deeply involved in that effort, along with organizations ranging from the YMCA to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and individuals from Stanford University.
ACS currently operates under a $1.2 million annual budget, and has counselors -- usually trained interns under the supervision of licensed professionals -- at numerous schools in both counties as well as at all three Midpeninsula locations of the Boys & Girls Club. Woodside High School just signed on, while Menlo-Atherton High this year has opted out.
ACS depends strongly on donations and fees for its economic base, and last year fell just $36,000 shy of making its full budget, Rey reports.
"I'm proud of the deficit," he said, because it indicates the level of success of the counseling outreach efforts, and increase in community and youth acceptance of the organization. A big element of the annual fundraising is the annual "Spring Sounds" event, scheduled for May 18 next year. This year that one event raised $137,000, and was a bit different than usual dinner-and-music, a costume-party atmosphere -- Rey attended dressed as Lawrence of Arabia. Next year will return to the usual format, he indicated.
There are dependable major donors, both individuals and foundations and organizations. But there was a fall-off in individual donations in the past year, likely related to the economy. Aarika Riddle, who supervises ACS' fund-development effort, said they exceeding their goal in grants, at 120 percent of goal, but "We didn't do as hot with donors," hitting just 82 percent of goal overall and a sad 64 percent from the annual mail campaign -- often the smaller donors.
She said this year ACS will target "the Millenials" age group of 40 and under, younger families who "a lot of times are looking for ways to get connected to their communities while also being in the "teenager" years of being a family.
The agency prides itself on the level of "scholarship" subsidies for its counseling fees, with fees as low as $5 per session depending on income -- the lowest of any counseling agency in the region, Rey said.
Roni Gillenson, who supervises on-campus counseling services, said a survey of young persons who received counseling indicated that a vast majority found it helpful, more than half said it helped them improve their grades and 70 percent said it improved their overall functioning. Many reported decreases in "depressive feelings" and many indicated that "kids were talking more and being more honest about it," Gillenson said.
"More and more we have students bring in friends," she said. It's not always an easy path, she noted -- digging out of a depression can be hard and "lots of times people get worse before they get better."
Connie Mayer, who oversees ACS' outpatient programs including after-school (and weekend) programs, said drug and alcohol use has grown this year, including marijuana, alcohol and a serious level of prescription drug use. ACS has a new program working with county probation departments with young persons convicted of misdemeanor drug use, with a Spanish-speaking component.
And there's a new prevention program, providing information for parents, a "Substance Abuse Information Line (SAIL), there's a teen talk line, and there's a stronger link to Stanford on the drug-and-alcohol issues.
Prevention information includes basic questions, such as "Where do they get drugs?" Mayer said. "It's not on the corner. It's at the schools."
In the after-school program, counselors are seeing a wide range of young persons, most of whom share a sense of isolation from home or school: Young persons where "something isn't fitting," she said. The effects on the individual can be "anything from mild to suicidal."
Mayer described a typical "waiting room" group: a 6th grader who parents just divorced; a 16-year-old from a boarding school who drives a van but whose mother died and his father is in a foreign country; a young man on probation "who doesn't want to be here"; a girl who is being bullied.
Participants in a parents group with people from all over the world share one thing in common: "They are exhausted," Mayer said.
Because of the upsurge in referrals and requests, the ACS offices at 1717 Embarcadero Road, Suite 4,000 (just east of Highway 101) have opened on Saturdays, and there is dynamic environment, Rey noted with a terse description:
"Remember the show, E.R.?"
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] with a copy to [email protected] He writes regular print columns for the Weekly and blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).