Mountain View Voice

News - December 9, 2011

Counseling for kids, teens and everyone in between

by Anna Li

A block from Castro and Church Street sits an ordinary house with a large unmarked door. It is easy to miss the small bronze sign for the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC).

Yet, inside the humble headquarters resides the group that runs the non-profit organization that provides mental health services to the communities of Mountain View, Los Alto and Los Altos Hills. CHAC is one of seven locally serving nonprofits that is supported by the Voice Holiday Fund this year.

CHAC's programs run the gamut, addressing issues such as alcohol and drug abuse, physical abuse, teen pregnancy, self-esteem issues, gang participation and even academic stress.

Soon, CHAC will be launching "Well Within," a new teen substance abuse treatment and prevention program.

Veronica Foster, the program director of "Well Within," says she believes this program is more pertinent than ever. Recently she met a teenager who told of a story about drug dealing in the hallways of a Palo Alto school. She recounts this jarring tale not to scare but to illustrate the need for reeducating teenagers.

"Someone's going to be talking to your teen about drugs. It's pandemic," she says.

While parents may be understandably hesitant to discuss drug use with their children, Foster believes that giving children and adolescents the right information is crucial to ensure that they make the right decisions. She wants the teens to feel comfortable coming to their parents and to CHAC for help.

"Well Within" is a 12-week after-school program designed to open channels of communication for all teens, from those at the early experimental stage to those with a history of addiction. The program consists of weekly individual counseling sessions, group support classes, family therapy and an optional relapse prevention program to support teens on the path to recovery.

Foster points to alcohol to highlight the necessity of the program. Alcohol is a dangerous substance because it is legal — kids assume that it is not as bad even though the effects are just as harmful as illicit drugs, she says.

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that in 2010 there were 8,100 new users per day who tried an illicit drug for the first time. Over half (57 percent) of these users were under 18 years old.

CHAC hopes the new initiative will alter self-destructive behavior in a dignified and respectful way.

Perhaps the most crucial component of CHAC's work is making sure children and adolescents have networks of support.

"Substance abuse and addiction is definitely a family issue," says Foster. Teens cannot recover without help from parents and family members, she says.

In fact, one technique that Foster hopes to incorporate in the program looks through a teen's family system. Sometimes there may be a pattern of intergenerational substance abuse that has trickled down and subsequently affects the teen's decisions. This simple awareness may often be the key to sustained change, says Foster.

Monique Kane, the executive director of CHAC, takes pride in the organization's diversity. CHAC offers its services in 12 different languages, including German, Mandarin, Russian, Farsi and Spanish.

She says she believes that healthy living requires a holistic approach that addresses multiple factors. Many substance abuse problems have underlying causes that go unaddressed and thus spur teens towards substances. These forces include cyber-bullying, divorce and peer pressure.

CHAC began in 1973 when community leaders and concerned parents set up the organization to address the growing problem of adolescent substance abuse in Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.

Almost 40 years later, CHAC has expanded to provide in-house therapy and serves 34 schools with counseling workshops and interventions. The non-profit estimates that they served more than 7,500 individuals at the clinic and over 19,000 students last year through their partnership with local schools, on an annual budget of $2.6 million.

"We follow them from elementary to middle to high school if we need to," says Kane.

One of CHAC's greatest resources is the group of 68 interns who run the majority of the organization's programs. Interns who are working toward a doctorate degree in social work or a license in marriage and family therapy receive practical training at the clinic. In exchange, they donate their time to the clinic, valued at an estimated $360,000.

Foster, who is an intern training for her license in marriage and family therapy, says that the diversity among interns ensures that CHAC can provide the most comprehensive services to their clients.

CHAC has an open door policy — anyone can make an appointment for affordable services and pay on a sliding scale.

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