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Brain Science and Mental Healthcare Combine at Directions for Youth & Families

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega Brain Science and Mental Healthcare Combine at Directions for Youth & Families
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Childhood trauma isn’t like an old t-shirt. It’s not something that can be tossed aside or outgrown.

A woman who grew up with her father’s substance abuse, her mother’s incarceration, and the resulting physical and emotional neglect is 12 times more likely to attempt suicide. She’s at three times the risk for heart disease and cancer. If she’s also ever suffered emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, her life expectancy will be 20 years shorter.

Doctors can measure a patient’s ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) score and make these and other predictions about their future health. Each ACE is one point, and each point is part of a larger physiological impact.

Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris first popularized this method at her clinic, Center for Youth Wellness, in San Francisco. Using a report published by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente, the center examines diagnosis and treatment through a broader lens, recognizing the relationship between physical and mental health. Burke says it best in her TED talk on ACEs and toxic stress:

“Imagine you’re walking in the forest, and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says ‘Release stress hormones. Adrenaline. Cortisol.’ And so your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear, or run from the bear. And that is wonderful — if you’re in a forest, and there’s a bear. But, the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being adaptive, or lifesaving, to maladaptive, or health damaging.”

Although this research is nearly two decades old, the greater medical community has been slow in integrating it. Thankfully, local nonprofit Directions for Youth and Families (DFYF) stands out in its use of ACE scores. The trauma-focused organization applies ACE screening and offers a whole host of programs taking place in drop-in centers and through outreach.

“If there’s a problem with kids today, we probably have a program that fits it,” said Duane Casares, CEO of DFYF.

Casares joined in 1990. At first he speaks clinically about the organization. Beginning with DFYF’s history, he spills the basic facts and figures. It started back in 1899 as Crittenton Family Services. Through a series of mergers over the following 103 years, Crittenton joined another organization, Directions for Youth, and became the Directions for Youth and Families that we know today.

What started as roughly 30 people staffed at one building has spilled over into five buildings — and they’re at capacity. With a staff of 130, including 70 licensed therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, and psychologists, DFYF serves about 8,300 kids each year. Individual or group therapies cover any and every ACE, such as abuse, neglect, domestic violence, coping with a family member’s mental illness, witnessing a murder, living through the murder of a parent or sibling, and household substance abuse.

Duane Casares, CEO of Directions for Youth and Families — Photo by Lauren Sega.

Duane Casares, CEO of Directions for Youth and Families — Photo by Lauren Sega.

Common as they are, transportation and childcare barriers are sidestepped, as the majority of programs involve going into homes, schools and community spaces. Kids can also participate in after school lessons in dance, art and music; and they’re always fed a warm meal.

It’s part of Casares’ vision, but he sees even more potential. By 2021, Casares wants a brand new facility — the Crittenton Center (location to be disclosed). Rather than another drop-in center with limited space and opportunity for growth, he’s targeting a parcel sprawling over three acres.

On top of all the services already offered, Casares is looking to partner with the Wexner Medical Center and Primary One to offer medical, dental and optical services. He imagines a coffeehouse where the community can gather and have conversations about neighborhood development. Outside, a large white wall would provide a canvas for movie nights, and a gazebo would serve as a venue for musical performances.

No, that’s not all. Casares wants an inner city swim team, and he wants this new facility to house an indoor pool. When the team isn’t practicing he imagines the space being used for senior aerobics classes. A community garden would be planted outside, and farmers’ markets would supply fresh produce to food insecure neighborhoods.

Sounds like a dream.

“I just want five million, that’s all,” he said. “Is that too much to ask?”

He’s in the process of begging local investors to, please, believe in this project. Right now, DFYF is organizing an event, Dogs and Drinks, with the primary purpose of raising awareness. His target: millennials.

“Millennials think about things differently,” he said, surprisingly without any hint of condescension. “I don’t think they’re going to support people through traditional funding streams. I think it’s going to have to be more meaningful, more purposeful. So, part of it is getting our message out.”

That message, if it hasn’t been clear: DFYF is providing critically necessary services to the most vulnerable of people in the city.

One group, Promises, counsels survivors of sexual abuse ages 7 to 17. The program has six 7-year-olds.

“It breaks your heart when you just see them coming to group,” Casares said. “But when they see that there’s other people like them — when they see that they’re not alone — they don’t feel so isolated.”

Nearly all (98 percent) of Promises graduates end up with demonstrable improvements in their personal goals and see the negative effects of their trauma diminish. At the end of the program, one class suggested writing letters to incoming kids, assuring them that the isolation is temporary and there is hope.

Casares hopes a casual event serving coney dogs and brews will attract the local millennials, offering DFYF a chance to tell its story and the plan going forward. The event will take place on January 26. Entry is $35 per person and earns access to the hotdog bar and two drinks.

For more information on DFYF, visit their website at http://www.dfyf.org/.

Photos by Lauren Sega.

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