An innovative program empowers our youth to reclaim their mental health

In recent months, we’ve shared a lot about the state of mental health of the young people in our country and here in the Inland Empire, where Reach Out operates. It’s undoubtedly a crisis, as pointed out by Dr. Rocha in her talk at this year’s National Innovative Communities Conference, and the statistics are chilling. Numbers like these (suicide is the second leading cause of death among those 15 -24 years old; nearly 20% of high school students report serious thoughts of suicide) lead most reasonable people to ask one question: What can we do? 

Reach Out is working hard on the answer to this question, and that work has culminated in the launch of their Intervention Specialist program, currently entering its second year of active work in the Chaffey Joint Union High School District. 

What is an intervention specialist? 

Neither teacher nor staff member, nor technically a therapist, Intervention Specialists are specially trained counselors who staff on-campus wellness centers. These specialists are equipped with a wealth of information and knowledge about the variety of situations that teens might bring into the centers with them, and while they are not licensed therapists, they are trained to refer serious issues to appropriate personnel. 

Sophia Juárez, director of the program for Reach Out, explained the need the wellness centers address in the nine high schools where they are currently active. She explained that during the lockdown period of the pandemic, many youth in the IE experienced isolation, violence, abuse, or grief at home. Many of our kids returned to school dealing with issues they didn’t have the tools to address on their own, and these kinds of big feelings can turn into anger issues, depression, substance abuse, and even violence. 

“Our intervention specialists are there to help them learn to self-soothe and teach them how to manage their anger issues. And this is an opportunity for the kids to go in and learn, where they’re given the tools to properly handle their emotions, so then they can go out and navigate in the moment without one of our intervention specialists holding their hand. One of the philosophies I like to use is: we educate them to equip them to empower them.”

Modeling Healthy Adult Relationships

Sophia, along with Intervention Specialist Program Managers Alyssa Montano and Josh Davis, talked about the wellness centers and those who staff them as adults offering the teens on campus a safe space. For some, it may be enough to just come in and sit, taking time to breathe and unwind. “We really work to make the centers welcoming to kids,” Alyssa noted. “We’ll have bean bag chairs and music playing, there are different activities and spaces where kids can read or journal.” 

Not all kids come in ready to unload their issues, and for many of them, trust is a key factor. “The program really puts the power back in the kids’ hands, and we let them know that we’re there if they want to talk, but that they also have the option of just getting a break. In fact, letting a kid who’s clearly struggling know that they don’t have to talk is often the key to unlocking that closed door,” Alyssa said. “Just letting them know they have that opportunity is critical. Especially if they never created a connection with a teacher or a counselor, because their trust in adults may have been broken in the past. We work hard at creating that place for them to just have that space and use it how they’d like to. Most of the time, once trust is established, kids are eager to talk. They need to.”

Sophia agreed, “I say this often to the staff, but this could potentially be the only healthy relationship these kids have with an adult.”

Intervention Specialists See and Hear the Kids of the IE

The heart of this program lies with the intervention specialists themselves. Each specialist goes through a comprehensive training and participates in ongoing training weekly, sharing best practices and key strategies. But beyond training, these are people who really want to make a difference to kids, who really believe in the impact they can have, one life at a time. 

“Sometimes,” Josh Davis noted, “It’s as simple as breathing. Giving a child the means to self-regulate, to know that they’ve got the tools to handle whatever they’re facing, is something that brings joy to these specialists. And beyond that, it’s about letting each individual know that their voice is heard, regardless of their truancy or substance abuse, or whatever issues they’ve got going on. Those issues don’t define them.”  

“We want to focus on letting kids know that their feelings matter, that they matter, and on giving them a safe space and tools to work through some really difficult challenges,” Sophia said. 

Via individualized conversations, a safe space to unwind, and a focus on arming small groups of students struggling with similar issues with tools to address those problems, the intervention specialists are making a real impact on the population of the Chaffey Joint Union High School District. According to last year’s records, more than 1500 members of the student population in the district signed into a wellness center at least once, with a total of more than 5,400 total visits. That’s an astounding amount of impact for a first-year program, and those at the helm of this effort expect to see that number increase. Via focused assessments geared toward generating data about issues and usage, Reach Out is working to build definitive proof that this program changes – and saves – lives. 

The Need is There

There is no question that the need for this type of resource-building intervention is there, and the number of students touched in year one only serves to emphasize that reality. 

“Sadly enough, we see so many things, so many situations come in and out of our wellness centers. But the best part is that we know that what we’re doing is potentially impacting these lives long term,” Sophia said. 

And for the kid whose life is impacted for the better? That should be evidence enough that this program is working. 

Still, there are many more kids than there is funding for this program, something Reach Out hopes to help change. “We’d love to see funding for this program to expand to other districts,” Sophia noted. “And we’re working on it.” 

To learn more about the Intervention Specialist program and other efforts Reach Out is making on behalf of the kids of the Inland Empire, click here.