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Long Island youth group develops nation's first mental health team for at-risk kids

JD Allen

A Long Island youth organization has claimed to become the first non-profit in the country to launch a special program for young people who have severe mental health challenges.

Hope for Youth provides drug prevention, residential housing and foster care services for young people in Nassau and Suffolk counties. They said they developed the nation’s first Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team for those ages 10 to 21 years old with serious mental health issues. The program targets the mental health needs of people who are at-risk of entering or those who are returning home from hospitals and residential treatment centers.

Jaclyn Marro, director of clinical services at Hope For Youth, said that it’s crucial that the family is involved in the process.

“When a child's been impacted by mental health, it impacts the entire family system, so we'll also be a support for the siblings, the parents,” Marro said. “The services we provide for the parents are not just education, but helping them cope with their child's behaviors.”

ACT offers different types of therapy in the homes of the child and their family. Each child has an individualized treatment plan based on their strengths and needs.

They’re provided with personalized therapy and skill-building psychiatry. A social worker can help advocate for the child if they have been charged with a crime and navigate the legal system. The team can also intervene if they’re having problems at school.

“We're going into their homes so we're hoping that we're not just meeting with the youth when we're there, we're asking the questions to the families too,” said Paul Hirsch, director of the ACT team. “We're trying to do family work. We're trying to understand how symptoms result or came about through understanding a longer or a family history of mental illness. So it's not just working with the youth, it's working with the youth and the family.”

Marro said that since launching the ACT team, other counties in New York are talking about launching their own programs.

“We were the first of the first three to go and then several others are on the way of coming out,” Marro said. “I know Nassau should be opening one, I believe in the summer or early fall, and hopefully we open up several more in Suffolk, as well.”

The state awarded $21 million last month to 15 different agencies that have mental health services for similar programs. Hope for Youth is the first to implement a plan out of the approved organizations.

Suffolk Youth ACT has a cap of treating 36 children at any time. They are selected from the state’s referral system, which is accessed by the county's Division of Community Mental Hygiene Services. Once the child is chosen, the ACT team works on trying to figure out the needs of the child and their family.

Natalie is a former news fellow with WSHU Public Radio.