Michelle is extremely mature for 21. The soft-spoken, cheerful blonde works part time and is going to school full time at UALR, majoring in criminal justice with a minor in psychology. She’s in a healthy relationship and is engaged to be married. They are both looking forward to starting a family.

Seven years ago, the picture was starkly different.

“When I was a young child, there were lots of pretty horrible things that happened to me,” Michelle explains. “Then when my mother and father split up, I was dragged in and out of court for seven years in a nasty custody battle. My mother kept taking me to therapists, but I never wanted to talk. I ended up with all this hatred and anger inside of me. And I started acting out.”

In early 2006, Michelle was arrested when she wrecked a stolen vehicle. Because it was her first offense, she was put on probation. A few months later, she was caught with marijuana and faced possession charges at 13 years old. Thankfully, her probation officer realized she needed help instead of incarceration. He filed a FINS (Family in Need of Services) petition in court. The judge approved it and sent Michelle to Youth Home, an intensive inpatient program in Little Rock for emotionally troubled and mentally ill teens.

“There’s no telling where I’d be right now if I hadn’t gotten the help I needed,” she says. “Youth Home really changed my life.”

Providing an Anchor

Founded in 1966, Youth Home is one of the oldest and largest psychiatric treatment facilities for troubled adolescents and their families. Today, Youth Home’s program is an intensive treatment model for teenagers diagnosed with mental illness, from depression and borderline personality disorder to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

More than 1,600 youths ages 12-18 and their families are served each year on the 52-acre campus on Colonel Glenn Road. Treatment includes individual, group and family therapy directed by child and adolescent psychiatrists, plus educational services. The teens live in houses in groups of 10-12, with licensed, trained adults who are focused on meeting their needs and helping them come to terms with the problems they’ve encountered in their lives.

According to Residential Program Director Brenda Griffin, LCSW, the Youth Home staff is “naturally gifted in building relationships with teens. There’s no reason they should trust anyone when they come in here, but we get through to them. We find their hearts. From our medical director to the nurses to the house staff, we have a team of adults who genuinely like working with this population and are very focused on meeting their needs. And we have some very needy kids.”

The young adults admitted to Youth Home need a “lifeline,” explains Griffin, having grown up in family environments marked by chaos and disruption. In the vast majority of cases, the child’s anti-social or criminal behavior can be traced back to the moment of parental abandonment, either by divorce, death, prison or their own mental health issues.

“These kids are left high and dry with nobody to teach them how to cope with stress and anxiety,” says Beth Butler, LCSW, a clincal therapist who works with the teens at Youth Home. “We also see a large amount of kids with drugs and alcohol abuse in their families. It’s disturbing because when you have parents who are struggling with addiction, abusing alcohol and drugs to cope or to socialize, the needs of the children are not met.

“You always hear that kids are resilient,” she continues, “and they are, but only if they have support. The kids we see don’t have the internal reserves and no external support. They’re like ships out in the ocean. They need anchoring and they need an emotional base. If the parents aren’t able to provide that, [the children will] just flounder. They’ll flounder in school, in relationships, in everything. They need intense adult support and guidance in order to get moving again. That’s why places like Youth Home are necessary.”

A Safe, Stable "Home"

When a teen is admitted to Youth Home, a multi-disciplinary team assesses his history and develops a treatment plan. If there is family support, the plan includes family therapy. If the child has no family support, the focus is on equipping him with the skills and tools he needs to be productive and independent.

“When [the teens] get here, most of them look horrible on paper,” admits Butler. “Some of them have done things that will make your eyes pop out of your head. When they get in a structured environment, you realize quickly that the kid on paper is not the real kid. With adult supervision, predictability, structure, medical treatment and a safe school environment, they quickly become like normal kids.”

When Michelle was first admitted to Youth Home, she “felt betrayed and abandoned.” She was determined to manipulate the system by telling her therapist and the other staff members whatever they needed to hear so she could go home. “But they saw through that right away,” she laughs.

Instead, she was placed on therapeutic restrictive status for the first month of her treatment. She had no family visits and very little interaction with any of the other residents. Essentially, she sat in a room by herself in order to think. The staff encouraged her to write in a journal and gave her plenty of opportunities to open up and talk about the issues that were causing her anti-social behavior

“Any kid that has to go through the ugliness that I’d been through is going to be affected,” she says. “I spent years resisting therapy and manipulating my mother into thinking I was fine. At Youth Home, I was forced to open up and deal with all the hatred and anger I’d been carrying around inside me since I was very young.”

Michelle participated in individual and group therapy while at Youth Home. She worked one-on-one with the staff members in the houses and with her own individual therapist. According to Griffin, Youth Home’s residential program works where outpatient therapy fails because the teen is removed from his chaotic home environment.

“The benefit of a residential program is that we have complete control of all aspects of their lives,” she says. “It’s a whole lot different when we start sending them home on passes. That’s where the rubber meets the road: Can they take the coping skills they’ve learned here and translate them into real-life situations in the chaos of their home environments? We work with whatever is in that home environment to shore it up, but those parents don’t have a lot of skills to offer their children. We’re here to help break the cycle.”

“My family knew I was troubled, but they didn’t know how to help me,” says Michelle. “I knew how to manipulate my mom and skirt around issues without facing my anger. They didn’t let me get away with that here. I was forced to face who I was and what I was becoming. Once I did that, so much weight was off my shoulders.”

Saving Lives

It’s tempting to ignore Michelle’s story, as well as the stories of the other hundreds of teens who benefit from Youth Home’s services every year. After all, it’s not polite to talk about mental health issues, especially when children are involved. But as Griffin points out: depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses don’t care about socioeconomic standing. All parents need to be healthy enough themselves to provide a safe, secure environment for their children. Failing that, they need to be honest enough with themselves to seek help, either for themselves or their children.

“It’s important for parents to understand that therapy is OK,” says Chrissy Chatham, development director and former admissions counselor for Youth Home. “It’s OK to get your children help. It’s OK to get yourself help if you’re struggling with issues. You can’t parent well if you’re not well. You’re not a bad parent because your child is struggling with depression, anxiety, bullying and acting out. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Get help.”

“The bottom line is: kids need healthy adults actively participating in their lives,” says Butler. “You can’t drop them off at the mall or let them wander the neighborhood and think they’re going to learn how to relate to the world and cope with stress and disappointment.”

Beth stresses that Youth Home — plus strong after-school and mentoring programs — is critical to a healthy, vibrant Little Rock community. How? The answer is simple when you consider where these teens will end up if their emotional needs go unmet and their mental illness goes untreated.

“A lot of them will go to jail,” Butler says frankly. “Because undiagnosed and untreated emotional illness gets translated into anti-social and criminal behaviors. Without adult support, it’s easy to fall in with others who are doing bad things. Instead of being productive, contributing members of society, these teenagers can easily end up draining taxpayer funds and community resources.”

Michelle agrees. “Honestly, if I hadn’t had been sent to Youth Home, I’d have been in a juvenile detention facility. The path I was on was leading me nowhere, but the six months I spent here made all the difference. I graduated from high school. I’m in college, and I’m making something of myself. I wouldn’t have any of that if I hadn’t been forced to deal with my problems and learn how to cope with my anger and hate.”

When Michelle left Youth Home, she continued to work with a therapist on an outpatient basis. Today, she can easily recognize when she needs to seek help and she knows how to ask for it if she needs it. “I’m not perfect by any means, but I feel like I have the tools I need to be successful in life. Plus, I have a support system to help me get there. Youth Home gave me that. It saved my life.”

GET INVOLVED: Eggshibition

Like all nonprofits, Youth Home relies on volunteer and financial support from the community to fulfill its mission of providing the best psychiatric services available to teens and families. The organization will host Eggshibition, its largest fundraiser of the year, April 5 at the Jack Stephens Center on the UALR campus.

The evening includes a silent auction featuring egg-shaped and egg-themed masterpieces created by many of Arkansas’ most talented artists. The festivities will also include hors d’oeuvres, libations, gift baskets from local merchants and a live auction. For ticket information, visit YouthHome.org.