Maintaining mental health during childhood implies a series of vital achievements, such as healthy social development and effective coping skills that lead to functionality at home, in school, and within a community.
According to a study performed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), however, there are four million children/adolescents that suffer from a serious mental disorder that hinders significant functional development, with only 20 percent of those children actually identified and given mental health services.
Despite some dismal statistics, the Youth Development Project (YDP), Santa Monica’s own school-based mental health program at the Child and Family Development Center, has been serving the “at-risk” and “high-risk” youth in the community for the past 20 years.
Program coordinator and licensed clinical social worker Noa Saadi weighed in on the mission and philosophy of YDP.
“We are targeting youth who are at-risk and at high-risk,” Saadi said. “When you hear about therapists in schools, it’s usually in context of some type of crisis that has occurred. However, there is so much more to this work, and at the heart of it are the relationships that are formed and the work done toward helping children, youth, and their families live healthier lives.”
YDP was founded in 1995 in direct response to a needs assessment conducted by the Child and Development Center.
The assessment, which involved interviewing the youth at Olympic Continuation High School, revealed that 80 percent of the participants described a high level of exposure to violence and identified a community need for earlier identification of and improved services to treat “at-risk” youth.
The program has set clear goals and endeavors to align with its philosophy of fostering growth, empowerment, positive coping, and pro-social behaviors among youth: to first identify the youth who display at-risk behaviors, to assist such youth in enhancing their coping and problem-solving skills, to build resilience through self-esteem and social support, to strengthen family systems through parent outreach and home visits, and to support teachers/counselors in their efforts with such youth in the classroom.
YDP also focuses on community collaboration, as it depends largely on a basis of referrals to reach at-risk youth and is also funded in part by the City.
“The program recognizes and utilizes the individual strengths of each youth, family member, and community collaborator,” Saadi said. “We work with families and gatekeepers in the community. For the last 20 years, the program has been functioning through a grant from the City, and the hospital [Providence Saint John’s Health Center] has been assisting through matching funds.”
As far as referrals go, school counselors, teachers, and even students themselves turn to YDP for assistance.
Participants usually come from local Santa Monica schools, including John Adams Middle School, Lincoln Middle School, and Olympic Continuation High School, although the program also accepts referrals from certain community-based agencies, including the Pico Youth and Family Center and the Police Activities League (PAL).
“Once we get a referral, we have an internal assessment that looks at a multi-systemic therapy model,” Saadi explained. “We look at areas of strengths, risk factors, and protective factors. Through an interview process, we get the child to open a bit more and learn more about their background through getting to know their families. Depending on the results, we get a really good idea of what kind of services that the child might be in need of.”
From group services to individual/family therapy, YDP provides a “myriad of services” by trained staff members, whether it be case management, teacher consultations, crisis support, psychiatric services, psychological evaluations, or parent trainings.
“Group therapy is provided to youth who have been identified as ‘at-risk,’” Saadi said. At-risk behavior is based on criteria including escalating/waning behaviors or some behavioral impairment that shows signs of resilience and potential.
“More intensive treatment services are provided to youth who have been identified as ‘high-risk,’ with treatment generally focusing on family and community intervention,” Saadi explained. High-risk behavior may involve ingrained patterns of behavior over an extended period of time or significant/multiple behavioral impairments.
YDP’s clients range from middle-schoolers at 10 or 11 years of age to young adults at 24 years of age.
“We serve at least 100 youth a year, not counting families and other extended folks,” Saadi said. “We usually surpass that number, but that’s usually the target.”
Saadi described the program within the Child and Family Development Center as a “clinic without walls.”
“My hope is that we can help to further de-stigmatize the idea of mental health service on a school campus,” Saadi said. “We want to help show the positive impact one can have on kids and families in need when effectively collaborating with school staff and community partners.”
The Child and Family Development Center is located at 1339 20th St. in Santa Monica.
For more information on the YDP and/or the Child and Family Development Center, call 310.829.8733.