May 20, 2024

Untying the Knots of Mental Health Support at Friends of the Children - Central Oregon

At Friends of the Children, we want every child in our program to recognize their own unique abilities, have the skills to navigate life's challenges, succeed in school, and have a plan for the future. As children grow up, life experiences build an intricate web that shapes well-being and their ability to thrive. The youth we serve have big hopes and dreams, but often face great obstacles - such as poverty, violence, substance abuse in the home - that can tie them in knots and increase the risk of experiencing a mental health challenge.

By the time we meet them between the ages of 4-6, children in our program have experienced on average four adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Our paid, professional mentors – called Friends - are highly trained and supervised to help youth untangle these knots by helping children process emotions, work through change, and practice coping skills that promote healing.

As we walk alongside youth and families for 12+ years – no matter what, we have found that some knots tighten and resist the gentle tug of support from a Friend alone. Recognizing this, Friends of the Children – Central Oregon has partnered with a local mental health clinic to provide real-time education and coaching to professional mentors in their work supporting the mental health of youth and caregivers.

Over a year ago, Friends – Central Oregon applied for funding from a local health council to invest in a partnership with Juniper Mountain Counseling. Each month, Juniper Mountain Counseling holds group sessions with the Friends for psychoeducation, to discuss the intricacies of the mental health challenges faced by the youth and families and help identify when additional intervention is necessary.

The work professional mentors do is deeply emotional and complex, but these sessions have allowed the Friends to talk about their experiences, find the tools to cope, and build the confidence to implement actionable solutions to support youth and caregivers when mental health challenges arise.

To seamlessly connect families to mental health services, the partnership with Juniper Mountain Counseling guarantees priority access for youth and families when a referral is made. Being in a rural community and in a mental health services desert, this partnership has removed a significant barrier and has been a game changer for intervention. The chapter has increased engagement for those who need services but who might otherwise be unable to or reluctant to access them – once referred, program youth and families are prioritized and able to bypass historically months-long waitlists.

Juniper Mountain Counseling also offers individual counseling and therapy to the Friends – Central Oregon team at no cost. This has been instrumental in creating a culture at the chapter of prioritizing mental health and breaking the stigma around accessing care. For example, one professional mentor engaged the therapy services from Juniper Mountain Counseling and this profoundly impacted a child’s perspective whose family had been referred for support. The Friend made support-seeking normal, positive, and healthy. This normalization fostered openness, allowing the youth to feel safe and seen, and diminished feelings of shame and isolation in seeking help.

As Friends – Central Oregon expands to serve more youth and families, the demand for more services and mental health support grows. The chapter is looking forward to building on the foundation of this partnership to provide further support to unravel the knots and obstacles youth and families face in their community.