On the Couch

couch_150.jpgYouth media and arts groups have long had mental health professionals on call for referrals in emergencies, like when a young person discloses she’s planning to hurt herself. But recently a number of groups have begun consulting with therapists regularly, as part of staff development.
These therapists provide ongoing guidance and support to staff, who often have no formal training in mental health issues. They reassure them when they’re on the right track and help them understand the psychological issues their young participants grapple with. Ultimately, many educators themselves learn to work more therapeutically, especially with young people developing personal narratives about trauma.
Dr. Leonard Simon recently spoke with Youth Media Reporter about his work as a mental health consultant for the teen-written paper L.A. Youth. He also provided guidelines for when a youth worker should take a step away from daily tasks to reflect.

How did you begin working with L.A. Youth?

They began a program working with foster teens and brought me in specifically to consult with them about the kids in that program. It was clear to them that a lot of these kids had serious emotional problems. The kids would speak with them about things ranging from suicidal attempts or ideation, to violence, anorexia, cutting. What the staff needed was someone with experience in that area who could provide them with a perspective on the problems and how to deal with them. I had run a crises clinic in family court for a couple of years so I had experience with adolescents with those kinds of issues.
When I first began meeting with the staff, we met monthly. They needed to sort out how serious different problems were. They needed ways to determine when it was appropriate to seek some kind of intervention or in the lesser, more common instances, when they just needed to have some sort of perspective or understanding of these problems to deal with them better.
Basically, when a young person talked to them about an issue, they wanted to know when to be scared—when it was appropriate to call in services—and when not to be.
Sometimes it was also trying to evaluate and point out to them when a kid had a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, and then make some suggestions for how to deal with the youth, while always recognizing that they aren’t themselves therapists.
But what eventually happened is we began speaking a lot about general problems of adolescence, the kind of standard crises and difficulties that most all adolescents experience.

Determining “when to be scared and when not to” is a common struggle for youth media educators. Are there guidelines for this?

When staff has a sense that “this is too much,” or that a situation is getting out of hand, I think it would be good to bring in some kind of consultation.
Also, if the staff’s emotions start feeling extreme to them they have to ask, “What’s going on here?” If you start getting angry at a young person or the facility there may be good reasons for it, but you also have to ask yourself, “Well, why am I so angry? What am I picking up? What am I responding to? What’s making me feel this way and what’s the trigger for it?” You should wonder about any extreme emotion that takes away from doing the job properly, including if you start feeling distanced or detached from the work, like, “I don’t care whether this story gets done.”
In the beginning, L.A. Youth staff would tend to be very nervous about problems the foster youth brought up. Understandably, if a kid was talking about suicide, they didn’t know when to take it seriously and call in for help and when to accept the fact that the person was talking about another time in their life when they felt suicidal and that didn’t necessarily mean they were suicidal at that moment.
One of the biggest things for me to do was to help the L.A. Youth staff trust their own instincts that they didn’t have to be afraid of bringing up a subject that was potentially disturbing to a youth, they didn’t have to be afraid of inquiring into something if a kid was already mentioning it.

One of the biggest things for me to do was to help the staff trust that they didn’t have to be afraid of bringing up a subject.

I let them know it was OK to try to be reasonably open about these subjects with the young people. That doesn’t mean to necessarily push the young person to talk more than they want to, but if a staff asked someone about their suicidal feelings it didn’t mean they were pressing them to jump off a bridge, that there was in fact a benefit to talking about it.

When you’re working with teens who are really struggling, it can be difficult to know how far to extend yourself and when you’re getting overly involved. Did this come up with L.A. Youth?

One instance was where the writer had been working on a piece for close to a year, and I had gone over the piece and it wasn’t quite finished, but it was very close. The writer had a lot of difficulty finishing it and I realized that she couldn’t do it, that she wasn’t organized mentally to finish it and couldn’t really get over some kind of hump. I encouraged the editor to be very active and fill in the gap, in a way, and I think any editor would do that. Editors always make specific suggestions and edits to make up for the deficits of the writers, and I would encourage the staff to do that.
They were a little leery about that. They were afraid that the writer would feel that she lost control of the piece, but she turned out to be grateful. You’re dealing with kids that do have real problems, and if you can help then over some kind of block or inability to help them accomplish their goal and learn that can really help.
These same kinds of problems can occur with any editor-writer relationship. That’s a complicated relationship to begin with. But there’s something about this situation—working with young people–where you also want the relationship to be clinically useful to the youth. It’s not just getting the story published, you also want it to have some sort of beneficial effect on the writer.

Any other advice for educators working with young people to make media?

The major thing is to trust that this kind of activity is very helpful to any young person. It’s very common among adolescents to want to write to get their experiences out, and I think it’s a very positive thing for them as well. It really helps a person to come to terms with their own experiences and emotions.
Above left: Consulting with Dr. Simon has informed L.A. Youth editor Amanda Riddle’s work with Amanda Cavonoff and other members of the paper’s teen staff.

A growing number of youth media and arts groups consult regularly with mental health professionals. A youth publication’s shrink-on-call explains how he has helped the editors trust their instincts.