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SIMHS SafeTY.net Early Intervention Program Fills Gaps in Services for Staten Island Youth Battling Trauma-Related Substance Use/Abuse

For more than a decade, Staten Island has been harboring a shameful secret that is only recently coming to light. Our Island outranks each borough, as well as the whole of New York City and State, in the rate of adolescent drug and alcohol abuse, including binge drinking and use of prescription drugs and illegal substances from marijuana to heroin.

Adding to the crisis, is the fact that community-based early intervention services are close to non-existent in the state. There is a serious gap in the continuum between prevention and treatment services for youth and young adults, whether they are at the early stages of substance use/abuse or their dependence is spiraling out of control. Changing the trajectory of abuse for these youngsters requires transforming the system of care within the community.

Experience has shown that the best approach to healing is a community-based, early intervention model that provides intensive case management supports with wrap-around services and goals that are clearly identified and driven by the youth’s future aspirations.

For many years the SIMHS has created and maintained programs to fill, if not close this gap. For example, our Teen Center services, exclusively for adolescent populations, boast over three decades of successful experience helping youngsters overcome chemical dependencies. Our highly effective SafeTY.net program for youth transitioning to adulthood, addresses the needs of those with behavioral health diagnoses that often include chemical dependency issues. SafeTY.net uses an evidence-supported, community-based early intervention model, Transition to Independence Process, TIP, developed at the University of South Florida.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012-2013, we received funding from The American Red Cross and the Staten Island Foundation to create a SafeTY.net offshoot focused on reaching the burgeoning young population on the South and East Shores of Staten Island who had turned, or were turning in increasing numbers, to chemical addictions in large part as a reaction to the traumas caused by the Superstorm, which had devastated that region’s families and communities.

Although the area’s substance abuse problem was recognized prior to Sandy, it now was increasing to epidemic proportions. This was not surprising, given that substance use increases due to stress, and the Superstorm resulted in extraordinarily high symptoms of PTSD. But it represented a challenge.

To meet that challenge, we developed Sandy SafeTY.net, targeting high-risk youth, ages 16-24, from hurricane-impacted communities with the highest rates of substance abuse and overdose deaths.

The SafeTY.net/TIP model proved extremely effective. In the course of one year, 481 youngsters not connected to any prevention or treatment services were assessed, 86 were engaged in the TIP process and made significant strides towards accomplishing healthy, life affirming goals, and 31 were admitted to either a mental health or substance abuse clinic for treatment. All of these high-risk youth and young adults would have been lost to substance abuse without this intensive, community-based, individualized early intervention approach.

Although children who experienced the Superstorm disaster are now several years older, the majority of survivors live in communities that are still experiencing after-effects. A NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC-DOHMH) door-to-door assessment of people directly affected by Hurricane Sandy found one in three children between the ages of 2 and 17 still reporting symptoms such as sadness, nervousness, trouble sleeping, and physical complaints that increased since the storm.

Our Hurricane Sandy funding has ended. However, with the unwavering advocacy of our City Council member Joseph Borelli, and the support of NYC-DOHMH and OASAS, we were fortunate to receive new city funding of $300,000 to replicate this model as an Early Intervention Substance Abuse program that will clearly make a difference in the lives of young South Shore residents – pre-teen to young adult – at risk of dependencies and addictions, who have been left without these local community-based, intense care management services. (This region still exhibits the Island’s highest rate of chemical dependencies among youth.)

The new South Shore SafeTY.net program will provide services in domains of education, employment, housing, sober socialization, life counseling/personal well-being and community living, to guide at-risk and high-risk youth function effectively without the crutch of alcohol or drugs.

The approach is positive and life affirming. Unlike most treatment models that focus on problems and weaknesses, TIP builds on the strengths and interests of each participating youth. A key staff member is the Life Coach, who works with each youth on an intensive and individual basis to help develop and implement a feasible plan to reach personally identified goals. Connecting family members, peers, significant others (school teachers, coaches, etc.), and other community resources/services, the Life Coach builds “virtual” teams focused on helping the youth move towards accomplishing chemical dependency-free goals.

The program utilizes seven guidelines across six domains:

  • Engaging clients through relationship development, person-centered planning, and focus on their futures;
  • Tailoring services and supports to be accessible, coordinated, appealing, non-stigmatizing, trauma-informed, and developmentally-appropriate;
  • Acknowledging and developing personal choice and social responsibility;
  • Ensuring a safety-net of support by involving parents, family members, and other informal and formal key players;
  • Enhancing competencies to achieve greater self-sufficiency and confidence;
  • Maintaining an outcome focus at the personal, programmatic, and community levels;
  • Involving young people, parents, and other community partners at these levels.

The domains encompass:

  • Employment/career – paid, unpaid, competitive, supportive or transitional work experience as an intern, apprentice or helper;
  • Educational opportunities/career track training – vocational or technical certification, high school diploma or GED, workplace educational programs;
  • Living status – supportive living, group home, independent living with a roommate, semi-independent living with offsite services coordinator, natural, adoptive, foster or extended family, residential center or crisis/detention center;
  • Personal effectiveness/well-being -interpersonal relationships with family, friends, mentors, dating skills/development of intimate relationships, maintenance of relationships with mentors and informal key players;
  • Emotional/behavioral well-being/self-determination – social problem solving, setting goals and plans to achieve goals, recognizing and accepting one’s strengths and limitations, self-advocacy. communication through speaking and listening, reading and writing, and information gathering;
  • Community-life functioning – conducting leisure activities alone and with others and creating interesting, safe, healthy and sober activities.

Most recently, we have received a grant from the NYS Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services to establish a licensed Medication-Assisted Treatment Clinic open to South Shore youth who are using drugs and ready for detox. As an expansion of the SafeTY.net program, this further boosts our continuum of services and support, transforming the system of care for youth to foster healthy behaviors and a better quality of life for our young citizens.

Contact SI Mental Health Society, Inc.  www.simhs.org and at (718) 442-2225.

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