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SAMHSA News - July/August 2005, Volume 13, Number 4

YOUTH VOICES: Speaking Out About Recovery

"When I was 15, I attempted suicide," said Lorrin McGinnis. "My mom was devastated, and a lot of my friends felt hurt. As a result, I decided about a week later that, okay, I can't live for myself right now because I'm not happy, but I'm going to try to live for other people. I was trying to make the biggest impact I could in other people's lives because I felt like I couldn't do that in my own life. The ironic part is that, by doing that, it really helped me. I found purpose in my own life."

Now age 20 and studying for a degree in social work, Ms. McGinnis is a youth coordinator at Utah Allies for Families in Ogden, UT.

photo of Lorrin McGinnis, an advocate of youth involvement in their own treatment

"I was about 11 or 12 and I was using alcohol," said Gerald Slaughter. "At 15 I was arrested, and I went to an outpatient treatment center. But I continued to relapse," he said. "I would show up and try to figure out how to pass the urine test. It was a 1992 pilot program, an outpatient service for adolescents."

Mr. Slaughter, now 24, is a team leader at Thunder Road, a Medical Center subsidiary, Chemical Dependency Recovery Hospital, and residential group home for adolescents in Oakland, CA. He is also in college.

photo of Gerald Slaughter, an advocate of youth involvement in their own treatment

Both programs are funded in part by SAMHSA. Utah Allies for Families, a participant in the Statewide Family Network program, is funded by SAMHSA's Center for Mental Health Services. The program provides information, referral, and support to families of children and youth with or at risk of experiencing serious emotional disturbances. Thunder Road is a grantee of the Strengthening Communities for Youth Program funded by SAMHSA's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.

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These programs are an important part of SAMHSA's guiding matrix area for children and families. One of the most fundamental tenets is that services for children, adolescents, and their families should be family-driven and youth-guided.

At a recent SAMHSA staff training, Ms. McGinnis and Mr. Slaughter both offered their personal insights on the importance of involving youth in their own treatment.

"Youth voices need to be heard," said Ms. McGinnis. "The biggest thing is to have youth involved at all levels," she said. "Youth should be at the center of their treatment plan, and when there's a team, then everybody's at the table and the youth is driving that team."

"In order to help anyone, you have to listen to them—especially young people," said Mr. Slaughter. "They are in the best place to tell you where they are at. Traditionally, in our society, youth are supposed to 'be seen but not heard,' but now, we have youth that make a lot of noise—and not always positive."

Ms. McGinnis agreed. "So many times, youth have problems with authority figures, Because they find themselves in situations where everything is dictated to them. But if programs have buy-in from young people, then those programs are going to work. It's not enough that you have family and professional partnerships."

Common sense is also a consideration, however. "I wouldn't have someone come in off the street for treatment and dictate
how to handle their long-term program," Mr. Slaughter said. "I'm not going to give them a blank check when they are coming from their chaos and every moment is about their emotions instead of thinking strategically."

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Logically, there needs to be a balance with adolescents having significant input into their treatment plan. "As far as mental health and substance abuse treatment is concerned, said Mr. Slaughter, "let's have family participation and buy-in, have clinicians sit in, have a roundtable for youth to discuss in a very adult manner what they are going to do about their treatment. Then, support their goals, and when they meet a goal, move on."

What if adolescents don't meet their treatment goals? "Then programs need to see what's going on, make adjustments, tailor it, and maybe see if they need to go on a different course," he said. "Life is like that—everything changes. For a young person to say, 'Okay, I've had equal say in this and I've done the work and now it's time for me to move in another direction,' or 'it's time for me to get out of here.' That's fair."

Schools need to partner more with the mental health system, according to Ms. McGinnis. "When I was released from the hospital when I was 12, I went back to school and they wanted to expel me. I had a counselor take me out of the school and tell me flat out that the principal wanted me removed from that school. I was a straight-A student, never got in trouble, but I had been hospitalized for a couple of months, and they had found out that I had been cutting myself and that scared them."

"Why are dropout rates so high? Because the needs of young people with mental illnesses are not being met in schools," she said. "The stigma surrounding mental health affects so many young people I work with because there is no mental health education in schools. I'd like to see mental health care systems partner with the school boards to do more training, do more outreach, educate teachers, be a resource for the schools, and provide technical assistance."

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Peer support is another vital element in adolescent treatment. "To have someone who understood what I was going through—someone my age, not someone older dictating to me—that's important," Mr. Slaughter said. "When people my age call me on my stuff and say, 'Hey, what you're doing is unacceptable.' Initially, I might not have heard it, but I respected it later because I understood that there were people who were in it with me, calling me on my behaviors. It really shined a light on areas I needed to change."

"When I was in treatment," Mr. Slaughter said, "there were one or two young counselors, 21 or 22, who had been through that program. They were a little bit older than me then, but not old enough for me to consider them 'adults,' so I really listened to them a lot because they came from a place of compassion."

"When I joined a youth advocacy group in Seattle, I was 15," said Ms. McGinnis. "The youth coordinator there was in her thirties, more than twice my age. But she was bipolar also, and she had been through some of the same things as me. I went to her graduation when she got her master's degree in social work. I was crying as she walked across the stage. Seeing her graduate made me think, 'I can do that!' She gave me so much hope for my own life. She'd been where I'd been, and now she was successful. She was somebody I could go to, talk to, and I knew she understood—because she'd been there. She had conquered some of the same things."

Being a mentor himself keeps Mr. Slaughter on his toes. "There's a term—keeping your ear to the streets," he explains. "Youth entering treatment—it's important to listen to them so you can help the next young person. It's easy to get lost with all the new lingo, the new drugs, the trends. To make it '3D,' you really have to understand where they are coming from. That takes a lot of patience and respect on the part of the clinician. Kids pick up early on whether you respect them. And if you don't respect them, they're not going to respect you."

Faith in the process seems to be the key. "I believe in the 12-step concept," said Mr. Slaughter. "And for me, the 12th step is giving back and helping people."

For more information about SAMHSA's matrix program for children and families, visit www.samhsa.gov/matrix/matrix
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Inside This Issue

Medicare Modernization Brings Big Changes
Part 1
Part 2

From the Administrator: Maximizing the Benefit of Medicare

Medicare Resources

Mental Health Action Agenda Released

Youth Voices: Speaking Out About Recovery

Recovery Month

Substance Use Among Pregnant Women

Raising Awareness About Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Voice Awards

Measuring Outcomes To Improve Services

SAMHSA Awards First 2005 Grants

Adult Drivers Drinking, Using Drugs

Boulder, Boston Areas Report Most Marijuana Use

DAWN Data Released on Drug Deaths


SAMHSA News - July/August 2005, Volume 13, Number 4

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