New space fosters teen mental health

The Loft at Eight Corners offers range of free services 7 days a week, 365 days a year

Whether teens are feeling just a little anxious or significantly depressed, looking to talk to a counselor or relax in a yoga class, The Loft at Eight Corners in Brookfield is a place for them to go.

The Loft, "a space for teen mental wellness," is similar in nature to The Living Room drop-in mental health center in La Grange, which opened in 2016. Both have the support of Hinsdale-based Community Memorial Foundation.

"One of the foundation's priorities is to increase access to mental health services and to demystify the stigma attached to mental health," said Greg DiDomenico, the foundation's president and CEO. "As the adult Living Room has evolved, we have been hearing from the community, 'What about youth? What about teens? Wouldn't it be great to have a place for teens?' "

So the foundation worked with NAMI Metro-Suburban and Pillars Community Health, its partners in creating the adult version, on a teen model. The result is a relaxing, multi-faceted space - with everything from individual offices to a kitchen to a yoga studio - that offers a continuum of individual and group services. All teens who enter will be asked to complete a brief mental health screening form for every visit, which provides a starting place for staff, said Kimberly Knake, executive director at NAMI Metro Suburban.

" 'You scored yourself here. Tell me a little more about that,' she said, sharing comments a counselor might make to a teen. "It's really a launching tool to engage the kids."

The evidence-based screenings and risk assessments help staff identify when a higher level of intervention is needed, said Angela Curran, president and CEO of Pillars Community Health.

"In that case, PCH's Mobile Crisis Response team is called - they can either travel to The Loft, meet the teen and family elsewhere or do a virtual crisis assessment, determine if hospitalization is needed or develop alternative safety plan at that time," Curran said.

Teens not in crisis might be directed to one of the skill-based groups offered at The Loft. Topics range from self-care to stress levels to OMG - "Oh My Grades."

"We also, with those offerings, have a six-week class that's Foundation in Cognitive Behavior Therapy, so if a student needs a little bit more support than the team can recommend, they sign up for this," Knake said.

The center is open daily from noon to 8 p.m., with the first groups on weekdays starting at 4 p.m.

"We purposely designed the hours so kids could pop in after school," Curran said. "We're open seven days, 365 days."

The center is staffed with a team that includes recovery support specialists (young adults living well in their own mental health recovery), family support specialists and mental health professionals.

"They gelled as a team so quickly. I'm very proud of them," Curran said. "They're getting the chance to develop this, build it as we go, be responsive and also do something that is a bit more creative in meeting needs."

Knake cited the Improv class and doughnut day as innovate ideas The Loft staff has had for attracting teens to the center.

"They're just putting a lot out here on social (media) and just really kind of listening to the teens and creating engaging but useful, helpful programs," Knake said.

With the increase in demand for youth mental health services and a shortage in behavioral health workers, The Loft offers teens individual support and group support, which is both efficient and beneficial.

"This is the myth buster that we're working on at Pillars Community Health - mental health support is so much more than therapy," Curran said.

The goal is to reduce the number of teens who ended up in crisis.

"We can't build our mental health system around crisis. That's what's been done for 40 years and it doesn't work," Curran said.

Knake and Curran expect more teens will come to The Loft as they hear about it from friends.

"We know that really if you have a teen program, the best marketing we're going to have are the teens who use the services and tell their peers to come," Curran said.

DiDomenico expressed gratitude for the several foundations that participated in funding The Loft and credited NAMI and Pillars Community Health for making the vision a reality.

"This is really a cool space and these guys made it happen," he said.

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean