ST. MARYS – For the past 11 years, area students requiring specialized care due to a mental health diagnosis have been utilizing the Crossroads Partial Hospitalization day treatment program, which offers a combination of group, individual and/or family therapy, academic support and medication management.
Now situated inside their new facility located on the campus of Elk Regional Health Center in St. Marys, the program serves students from seven area school districts ranging in age from 11-18 years old.
Since its inception in 2000, approximately 275 students have participated in the program, which is overseen by Dickinson Center, Inc. and is a part of the St. Marys Area School District. Grant support has been provided by many community entities, including the St. Marys United Way and the Elk County Community Foundation.
Upon arriving each morning, students check in with the program's secretary where they turn in any type of electronics such as cell phones and mp3 players.
Tonya Wolfe, program director, oversees a small staff: Amy Gilga, a teacher with a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in special education who started with the program in September; Sarah Ann Lennox, a teacher's aide certified in special education; and therapists Caraline Elias, who began working at Crossroads two months ago, and Jim Aaron, who has been with the program for nearly six years.
Due to the varying ages of students, each of them is on a different curriculum which is sent on a weekly basis to Crossroads from the students'
home school districts. This ensures each student stays on track with school assignments and has a smooth transition back into their class when their treatment is completed.
Currently there are 14 students enrolled in the program, which Gilga said are split into two groups. While she teaches one group, the second group attends group therapy. As part of their school day, students receive three hours of class and three hours of therapy.
Inside the classroom each day is a special education teacher and a teacher's aide in order to ensure that students receive individualized assistance with assignments. They are joined by a therapist who provides behavioral intervention while at the same time monitoring progress toward treatment goals related to classroom success.
Elias explained that each morning students are assessed for their moods or triggers and to see if they have any symptoms they are exhibiting. Conversation is also initiated so students can get out whatever is on their mind.
"They really enjoy that because it gives them the opportunity to get whatever they're thinking about out and then we open up the conversation for whatever our topic is for the day," Elias said.
Students are also asked about the number of hours they slept and their quality of sleep each night. The quantity and quality of sleep has been proven to greatly impact mood and overall health.
Group therapy sessions emphasize and support the development of skills required to better manage symptoms and behaviors, improve relationships, handle conflicts, and manage the stressors commonly experienced by adolescents within their homes, schools and communities.
A wide range of topics are presented as part of the group therapy curriculum, much the same way a teacher prepares a lesson plan. Examples of topics most often covered include anger triggers and management, conflict resolution, identifying and using support systems, personal hygiene, social skills and coping strategies for managing depression, stress and anxiety.
"Lately we've been working on problem solving, coping skills and goal setting," Elias said.
In addition, there is also an activity tied in with the lesson. A popular activity with students is poster making.
"This gives them a way to show a representation of whatever it is they are learning," she said.
Afternoon group therapy typically consists of team-building activities such as games and exercises to build trust.
"[These are] things that really get them to work together, trust one another and really build those interpersonal relationships with one another, which they really enjoy," Elias said.
She added that it is the role of the therapist to maintain a safe and secure environment for students to speak openly and honestly, and that confidentiality is paramount in group therapy.
Each group is comprised of 10 students or less.
"We try to keep groups large enough that you can get a decent discussion going, but not too big where they feel uncomfortable sharing things," Elias said. "We try to group together the kids that have common experiences or that mesh well together because we want the groups to be cohesive."
A point system is also in place at Crossroads as part of its behavioral modification program, which focuses on improving behavior through positive reinforcement. All students have the opportunity to earn or lose points daily depending on their behavior. As they earn points they can take a test to advance to the next level.
Pick up a copy of the Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.