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Providence doubles its mental health program for middle-schoolers at new facility in North Spokane

Spokesman-Review - 8/22/2023

Aug. 21—After being hospitalized for his anxiety-related seizures, 12-year-old Liam Stretch found ways to cope through Providence's BEST program — which helps youths develop behavioral and emotional skills .

Through six to eight weeks of outpatient treatment, Liam saw his symptoms improve and was diagnosed with autism. He is now ready to start seventh grade with a "whole new side" of his personality he has "unlocked," he said.

The 30-year-old Behavioral and Emotional Skills Training (BEST) program is being expanded by the hospital system and recently moved from Sacred Heart Children's Hospital to north Spokane'sProvidence Holy Family Hospital.

At the newly renovated 7,000-square-foot space, the program will be able to treat 24 patients at a time, rather than 12. They will also be able to accept 7-year-olds, from their previous age range of 8 to 12.

"We're here today because our community has a huge need around mental health care of children and breaking the cycle early on with early intervention to heal our community's mental health," Susan Stacey, Providence Inland Northwest Washington's chief executive officer, said at an event unveiling the new facility.

The $2.16 million renovations were funded through the Providence Inland Northwest Foundation and a $1.75 million state grant.

Associate Program Director Dr. Jane Phelps-Tschang said in an interview the intensive mental health program fills a need for many middle schoolers who otherwise would need to be checked into an inpatient facility.

"Kids come to our facility a number of times a week for several hours at a time, and then they go home at night," Phelps-Tschang said. "These are kiddos who at one point might have received inpatient care because they have a lot of psychological mental health needs. But we're that mid-level service before someone would go into kind of classic inpatient program."

Before he attended the program, Liam struggled with crippling anxiety and symptoms related to his undiagnosed autism.

"I would shake. I would be too scared to enter a dark room," he said.

Liam's mother, Stephanie Stretch, knew her son needed mental health treatment, but she was "at a loss of where to go or who to talk to."

"One of the hardest things in dealing with children with mental health struggles is I was clueless. I didn't have the tools to help my children," she said of her two kids, both of whom were recently diagnosed with autism.

After being referred to Providence's program following Liam's hospitalization, the then-sixth grader was skeptical. He was won over by the end of the day.

"We all got to enjoy what we did. And they went the extra mile by making sure that everybody was included, and everyone felt happy," Liam said.

"My first day, I was very nervous and skeptical about this place, and I came home and I was just like, 'I love it!' " Liam said to a crowd at the new facility's grand opening while squeezing a stress ball.

According to Phelps-Tschang, treatment is individualized for each child and family in the program, but most of the day is spent in small groups. Activities in these groups are generally focused on "emotional coping skills."

"Mental health needs among children really have exploded over the last couple of years. And most commonly, the symptoms that we're seeing are depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and actually a lot of trauma responses as well," she said. "A lot of children struggle with their emotional regulation. By which I mean they get really frustrated easily.

"Kiddos can get angry very easily. They may talk back to their parents, and parents struggle with their own way of communicating with the kiddos, and our goal is really to help family come together."

The larger space will allow for more and smaller group activities among the patients.

"The space is new, the program is not. Our BEST program has been in place for nearly 30 years. And I have to tell you, the space looked like it," Stacey said. "It was small. It didn't have the ability to have small groups in ways that kept ages connected."

As part of its goal to connect families, Providence's program holds weekly classes for parents , as well as family therapy sessions.

Stephanie Stretch said the program was the first time she had found assistance "focused on the entire family" and not just Liam.

"Not only did we get his diagnosis of autism, but we were given resources so that we could learn how to better parent him through his autism," she said.

At first, Liam did not want to be diagnosed, but he felt "like everything could finally be fixed" after he was. His mother emphasized that her children know that autism "isn't a bad thing."

"It's not a deficit. It's just a difference. But learning what autism was and how that affects him differently than his peers has just allowed him to realize, 'OK, there's nothing wrong, but I am different.' So people are going to respond to me differently," she said.

About to start seventh grade in the coming weeks, Liam believes his anxiety will improve, and he will have a much happier year.

"I have all these new things I've learned that I love," he said, before demonstrating several breathing exercises he learned in the program.


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