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A place for troubled teens to turn

Hospital's program helps kids navigate their emotions

By many measures, kids growing up in Mountain View and Los Altos have it good. The area is known for its strong schools and even stronger local economy. They are surrounded by some of the world's top technology firms, leading scientific research organizations and are awash in high culture.

But for some teens -- especially those born to high-achieving parents -- the pressure to live up to expectations, whether real or imagined, can be immense, according to Michael Fitzgerald, executive director of behavioral health services at El Camino Hospital.

Fitzgerald runs an El Camino program called ASPIRE, or After School Program Interventions and Resiliency Program, which was established in 2010 to help overwhelmed teens learn to manage the stresses they may feel.

"These kids put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed," Fitzgerald told the Voice. "Look at the community we live in. We all wonder if we measure up. It's tough on these kids."

According to Fitzgerald, teens don't have the same coping abilities that adults do. "At that age, they don't have the same skill set to compartmentalize things, rationalize things -- they don't have those skills nailed down yet."

For some teens, a breakup, a fight with a friend or even getting a B on a test instead of an A, can be a big deal, he said. To adults looking back on their brooding teen years, it can seem trivial in retrospect, but its important to remember that the teens also don't have the perspective an adult has, he said.

The program was started in part because of a spike in local teen suicides, Fitzgerald said. "We had kids stepping in front of trains. It was horrible."

El Camino put together a community task force aimed at figuring out how to combat the issue. Fitzgerald said they didn't simply want to hospitalize suicidal teens for a few days and then release them. The task force came to the conclusion that they would have to address the root of the problem.

The ASPIRE program was built to help troubled teens identify exactly what has been bothering them, learn to stop negative cycles of thinking before they become overwhelming, and ultimately move past their troubling thoughts and emotions if they can.

Counselors in the ASPIRE program teach positive and productive coping mechanisms to the kids.

It can be hard at first to get a teen to talk about what it is that is bothering them, so the ASPIRE team encourages the teens to express themselves through art projects. This can help open a bridge of communication between the teens and the adult counselors. It also may help an adolescent understand more fully what it is that is actually bothering them.

"Sometimes they don't have the verbal chops to explain how they feel," Fitzgerald said. "But with arts they can explore how they feel."

Once a conversation is started, ASPIRE counselors can help the teens learn to identify negative feelings as they begin to take hold and give them tools to analyze and deal with those feelings.

Fitzgerald said ASPIRE counselors also work to instil an attitude of "radical acceptance" in the teens.

"A lot of kids judge themselves. They are very hard on themselves and they are in so much pain." The idea behind radical acceptance is to allow the kids to "give themselves a break -- to not be so judgmental."

Besides the risk of suicide, Fitzgerald said, there are many other unproductive and harmful behaviors teens sometimes engage in to cope with negative feelings. These may include not eating, not sleeping, being combative, smoking, and abusing drugs and alcohol.

The idea at ASPIRE is to help the teens avoid doing these things when they feel down, and to instead learn to overcome their anxieties and stress in a positive way.

Teens come to ASPIRE from all over the Bay Area and beyond. Fitzgerald said some have come to the program all the way from Gilroy and Santa Cruz to attend. The program has also had its fair share of participants from the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District.

Students coming from Mountain View or Los Altos high schools can receive high school credit for attending, and it's only fair, Fitzgerald said. ASPIRE participants are given homework assignments and follow lesson plans. It works out well, he said. The teens get five semester hours of credit and they can tell their friends that they are taking extra courses.

However, he noted, seeking help for mental health is not something anyone should be embarrassed about. He acknowledged that there is a stigma surrounding people who get mental health treatment, and that's unfortunate. If people weren't so averse to the idea of mental health treatment, ASPIRE and other similar programs might be able to help people earlier, Fitzgerald said.

As it currently stands, many ASPIRE participants come to the program after they have already acted out in a drastic way and have been hospitalized.

The program seeks to combat perceptions that seeking treatment is a negative thing or is an indication that someone is weak. The program doesn't emphasize diagnosis, but rather management, Fitzgerald said.

The eight-week program runs Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and it's available at both El Camino campuses, in Los Gatos and Mountain View. The program takes up to nine participants at a time. More information can be found by clicking here.

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