A child’s ability to perform academically is directly linked to their mental health. It is really hard for a student to perform well in school when they are overwhelmed and don’t know how to deal with that stress – it makes it hard to focus, to comprehend and retain, to apply anything they’re learning. - Ann Arora, member of the Club’s Board of Governors and a San Francisco-based psychotherapist.
Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco recognizes that providing mental health support is a fundamental part of empowering youth to succeed and this is a top priority for our organization. As the Club works to support youth as they recover from the devastating impact of the pandemic, our Behavioral Health Services team has identified that robust socioemotional programming and support is critical to mitigating learning loss and ensuring future success.
Ann supports this unequivocally. "Expanding existing socioemotional programs will allow BGCSF to help more youth reach their potential, particularly their academic potential. As we do even more to address the very real mental health issues that are out there in our community, our ability to help kids reach their potential generally and academically is only going to grow."
The clear link between a child’s mental health and their overall success has been the foundation behind the development of BGCSF’s BHS department, which Debby Machold, Citywide Director, has helped build over the past 17 years. Debby began her career as a clinician specializing in addictions, rape trauma, and crisis intervention, but as she worked with adults, she realized many of her patients’ issues were rooted in unaddressed childhood trauma. This led her to shift her focus to youth. Debby joined BGCSF in 2004 so she could “be a resource prior to or when bad things happen, so that young people develop healthy ways to cope with trauma throughout life.”
As Director of BHS, Debby is responsible for ensuring the social and emotional health of our Club members, both at our Clubs and at Camp Mendocino. She oversees a growing clinical team which provides individual, group, and family therapy to Club members, along with case management services. This system has helped build an organization-wide culture of support, where talking about feelings and emotions is normalized. Building mental health support into everything BGCSF does over a long period of time has made it easier to identify problems when they occur and greatly reduce the stigma around seeking help. Debby says:
Our program looks at mental health needs from a prevention and early-intervention standpoint. Providing resources early to our members so that emotional challenges don’t develop into a more pronounced mental-health need later, has been our primary focus. The resources we provide don’t always look like traditional therapy. We use games, activities, and play to facilitate the healing process. This makes it safer for kids to express their emotions.
Providing behavioral health training to our staff members at BGCSF is also a vital part of what the BHS team does. From first day onboarding to regular staff trainings, we train our staff to be prepared to provide socioemotional support to members and to recognize when more serious issues need to be addressed:
Every member of our staff is exposed to behavioral health training. Talking about these difficult issues is really an art form. There's a way to do it that is less stressful for our members and their families. From Day 1, we have that conversation with everyone who joins our organization. It’s all part of an ongoing conversation about how we can best support our members’ social and emotional health – which then contributes to Club members’ overall success.
In addition to regular training, the BHS team is right there in the Clubhouses, and, now virtually too, interacting with kids and staff every day. Each Clubhouse has a behavioral health services staff member who serves as a liaison, meeting with staff teams every two weeks to discuss challenges and successes that Club members are experiencing. Clubhouse staff work with kids every day. BHS staff are trained to identify and treat serious problems. By working together, they create a comprehensive support system where youth are comfortable discussing their feelings and asking for help when they need it. The BHS team is always watching and listening for opportunities when they can provide a deeper understanding or recommend an additional course of action. The goal is to have staff feel more empowered to act.
Reducing stigma, approaching socioemotional issues with sensitivity, and increasing awareness about our programs are also important facets of BGCSF’s work in this space. Ann says,
It’s important that people realize a mental health issue does not have to stop you from doing anything in life. The barrier is not the mental health issue; it is the stigma and the lack of treatment. Our mission to support kids to reach their full potential is directly linked to supporting their mental health. That’s why it’s so important to only that to have behavioral health programs, but to talk about mental health issues so everyone in this community knows that support and care are there when they need them.
Our youth have responded incredibly well to this comprehensive behavioral-health approach and the overall environment of prioritizing social and emotional health. One young member refers to her therapist as her “feelings doctor,” whose role in her life is as important – and as natural – as her pediatrician. And a 9-year-old boy recently said to a BHS staff member, “I didn’t feel like coming in today, but I’m glad I did. I feel a lot better now.” For a 9-year-old to identify and verbalize those feelings shows the immense progress the Club is making to reduce stigma and acknowledge complex emotions.
Because youth receive counseling from such a young age at the Club, our members are better equipped to address emotional challenges as they grow older – from the stressful changes that come with puberty and adolescence to the challenges of a global pandemic. Our long-standing BHS program and culture of prioritizing mental health mean that when a crisis like the pandemic strikes, we are well-positioned to help and fully recognize our deep responsibility to do so.
Through their intimate work with our youth, the BHS team saw that the vast majority of our members were struggling with virtual education and felt disengaged from the classroom, their teachers, and their peers. Knowing that these feelings can often lead to negative social experiences and further disengagement, the Club prioritized wellness activities, regular mental-health check-ins, and early intervention. We built spaces, both virtually and in person, where youth are encouraged to talk about the issues impacting them, from the pandemic to the racial justice movement, and where it’s OK to express feelings of anger, sadness, or stress. Then, together, youth, Clubhouse staff, and BHS team members worked to develop coping strategies that have helped youth manage during this challenging time.
Skyy Foster, a Behavioral Health Specialist at the Clubs, has had great success incorporating wellness exercises and activities into daily programming. In her work, she provides opportunities for youth to explore how they are feeling in a way that is fun and engaging, without a lot of pressure, so they can recognize and cope with their emotions.
One example is the five finger breathing exercise, which is an activity we use to de-escalate situations and help members stabilize their emotions. I had one student who was upset and needed to have a difficult conversation. We did this breathing exercise together, and afterward he was ready to talk and to manage the day with a better attitude.
For kids who need a little more than wellness and prevention, the Club continues to offer individual and family therapy at no out-of-pocket cost to families. During the pandemic we expanded our work to provide virtual sessions to reach as many youth as possible. The BHS team and all BGCSF staff are always working to identify youth who need an additional level of support and to offer them those extra resources, from mentorship and case management to individual or family therapy. Plus, the BHS team is always expanding their offerings – recently leading an organization-wide training on trauma and healing designed to help both staff and youth recover from this crisis.
Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco has been a leader in the social and emotional health space for decades, and we have continued to serve as a vital resource helping the youth we serve address the additional mental health challenges presented by the pandemic. Now, as we look beyond this immensely challenging time, our Board of Governors has committed to making socioemotional health an even bigger priority, with significant new funding to expand our BHS team.
Looking back on this difficult time, Debby says,
I’m so proud to work for an organization that has believed in this work and, every step of the way, has supported the decisions the BHS team has made to support our members. Looking forward, the additional financial support for the BHS program will be instrumental in helping our youth successfully navigate this new post-pandemic world.
This collaborative effort between staff leadership, Board members, families, and a dedicated donor community is integral to BGCSF’s success in prioritizing wellness and healing in response to COVID 19. Together, we will ensure our youth receive all the mental, social, and emotional support they need to come through this pandemic stronger than ever and ready to achieve their dreams.