A Safe Place for Dez to Be Herself
Providing Intensive Mental Health Treatment for Children and Youth
“When you come out, you risk not being loved,” says 16-year-old Dez. “But if you hold it in, you can’t be yourself. It’s a lose-lose situation. When you can’t be yourself, it feels horrible. You have to act a certain way and dress a certain way, pretending to be someone else. When I’m putting on an act, it hurts.”
Today, Dez is helping to create a safe place for other LGBTQ+ youth at Pacific Clinics’ site in Monrovia where she began receiving therapy at 5 years old. Knowing she was different made Dez feel scared and worried about fitting in at school. At the age of 13, she came out to her therapist.
“Pacific Clinics is helpful, caring, understanding and approachable. They make me feel cared for and important. They care about what I have to say,” says Dez, who is now open about her sexual orientation, despite feeling unaccepted at home and school. “When I’m having a bad day, they will listen and help me. Without Pacific Clinics, there would be a lot more fights at home and I wouldn’t have come out to my family.”
Practical and Effective Help
The Pacific Clinics site in Monrovia treats children ages 4 to 18 who require intensive services. Most of the children are at risk of hospitalization, losing their school placement and/or being removed from their home due to negative behaviors associated with trauma and mental health issues. Pacific Clinics is their last resort and is tasked with saving them from those serious consequences.
A unique aspect of the intensive treatment program at the Monrovia site is age-specific group therapy. “We use the group setting to observe their behaviors and social interactions to create treatment plans for individual and family sessions. We get a better idea of the depression or trauma they are experiencing, and the children begin to open up,” says Jesus Aguirre, a mental health counselor who leads several groups.
An important component of the treatment philosophy is helping children and families practice what they learn in a session by applying it to a possible school, social or home environment. “Our therapy rooms are constructed to simulate a home, kitchen or school setting, so they can transfer their new coping and calming skills to a real-world setting where they experience triggers,” explains Jesus.
Children are encouraged to attend group therapy sessions focused on specific and relatable issues and challenges. Some group topics include independent living skills, grief and loss, and Safe Dates for children who have experienced domestic violence or sexual trauma.
Dez Finds Her Voice Helping Other LGBTQ+ Youth
In the group therapy sessions, Jesus and other members of her therapy team noticed that Dez seemed to show empathy to others who were having a difficult time accepting help or participating in the activities.
As a result, Dez was asked to help develop a curriculum addressing teens who identify as LGBTQ+. “Dez was excited to share ideas and have her voice heard to help other LGBTQ+ students,” says Jesus. Dez’ therapy team felt that engaging Dez in this manner provided the chance to utilize her many strengths while helping others and exploring her own identity.
The curriculum they created focuses on the fears and anxiety LGBTQ+ teens face; how to identify the source of negative thoughts; and how to create a place where they feel welcome and safe and are comfortable talking openly. “Our goal is to help kids better understand themselves, find ways to cope and to help others who aren’t out yet,” says Dez. “It makes me feel good knowing that I’m going to be able to help other people.”