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Alexandria teens would get mental health first aid training in new recreation center program

Charles Houston Recreation Center (901 Wythe Street) in Old Town (via City of Alexandria)

(Updated at 5 p.m.) One-on-one therapy, an art program and mental health first aid training are just a few of the new offerings in a proposed mental health program pilot at Alexandria recreation centers.

City Council will review the six-month, $75,000 pilot program with the city’s Department of Recreation, Parks, & Cultural Activities (RPCA) at its meeting Tuesday night. The program would run at three recreation centers — Charles Houston (901 Wythe Street), William Ramsay (5650 Sanger Avenue) and Patrick Henry (4650 Taney Avenue).

The city has been making concerted efforts toward access to mental health resources. Earlier this year, Alexandria City Public Schools expanded their virtual mental health services in a partnership with Hazel Health, prompting ACPS Executive Director of Student Support Teams to provide feedback on unmet needs.

“ACPS suggested that RPCA conduct focus groups with students and use the pilot to tie in supports to substance use education, suicide prevention, and community building activities at City recreation centers,” staff said in a memo to Council.

The program was developed after RPCA staff interviewed more than 50 children at the three recreation centers.

City Council Member Alyia Gaskins introduced the program into the current budget.

“I was proud to introduce the budget add for this pilot as a direct response to young people’s request to ‘meet them where they are’ and to ‘create more safe spaces,'” Gaskins said. “The staff proposal was shaped directly by and with our youth.”

The pilot would be funded from the city’s contingent reserves, with $65,000 going to “direct services and training,” with the remainder used for space modifications, according to the memo.

“Additional funding would be required to continue these services into future fiscal years and/or to additional recreation centers,” staff wrote.

According to the city, the program would contain the following:

  1. Utilize contractor-based mental wellness programming: RPCA identified a contractor, that provides a variety of programs for youth that incorporate several activities that youth spoke about in our focus groups while establishing a platform to discuss challenging issues. All the instructors for the programs are licensed therapists, social workers, and/or counselors. In conjunction with the programs, they will follow up one-on-one with youth as needed and can help identify additional needs to provide specific referrals. RPCA used this contractor this fall to provide a mental health-based art program at Charles Houston and the teens consistently participated and looked forward to the program (and the class instructors) every week.

The three contracted programs proposed are:

  • Art Program: The Arts offer an opportunity for teenagers to develop a positive sense of self-esteem and formulate healthy coping skills. Staff has taken note of the powerful impact the Arts can have on the overall well-being of teenagers. The Arts program consists of weekly lesson plans, workshops, and collaborative projects that focus on building self-esteem, coping skills, and goal setting.
  • Wellness Club: The club is dedicated to promoting mental wellness, decompression, and self-care through a variety of activities such as art, music, and wellness practices. The main goal of the club is to support students in developing positive coping mechanisms to reduce stress, while also teaching relaxation techniques through leisure activities and mindfulness. These activities may include arts and crafts, puzzles, music, yoga, breathing techniques, and guest speakers such as therapists, life coaches, and yoga instructors.
  • Scholars Program: The program applies mental health strategies to academics in the classroom. This program aims to teach students how to develop coping skills to manage anxiety and focus on successfully completing their assignments and exams. Mental health professionals will guide students through an overview of mental health awareness, mindfulness techniques, and provide guidance on when and how to apply coping strategies.

2. Provide Youth Mental Health First Aid and Question Persuade Refer (QPR) suicide prevention training to RPCA recreation center staff working with youth. Youth Mental Health First Aid is designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, health and human services workers, and other caring citizens how to help an adolescent (age 11-18) who is experiencing a mental health or addictions challenge or is in crisis. Youth mental Health First Aid is primarily designed for adults who regularly interact with young people. The course introduces common mental health challenges for youth, reviews typical adolescent development, and teaches a -step action plan for how to help young people both in crisis and non-crisis situations. Topics covered include anxiety, depression, substance use, disorders in which psychosis may occur, disruptive behavior disorders (including AD/HD), and eating disorders.

3. Provide Teen Mental Health First Aid training for teens participating in center activities. The program teaches teens in grades 10-12, or ages 15-18, how to identify, understand and respond to signs of a mental health or substance use challenge in their friends and peers. The training gives teens the skills to have supportive conversations with their friends and teaches them how to get help from a responsible and trusted adult.

4. Identify and utilize contracted therapists for speaking engagements with parents with a goal of reducing the stigma of seeking help for mental health challenges. Based on direct concerns or feedback from parents, contract therapists, CSB referrals and DCHS staff can provide additional resources.

5. Configure existing center spaces to support trauma-informed practices including, privacy, comfort, decompression, and one-on-one discussions with trusted adults, including licensed providers.

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