UGN, community talks youth mental health, substance abuse

Posted 7/26/16

Thirty-five community members came together on June 14 to learn more about about mental health issues and substance abuse among the young in Jefferson County.

The event staged at the Port Townsend …

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UGN, community talks youth mental health, substance abuse


Thirty-five community members came together on June 14 to learn more about about mental health issues and substance abuse among the young in Jefferson County.

The event staged at the Port Townsend Public Library was coordinated by Nikki Russell, United Good Neighbors (UGN) director of community engagement, as an opportunity for people to "share their perspectives and generate ideas for addressing the behavioral health needs of our youth."

The "community conversation" has led to action: UGN has launched a "summer appeal" to raise $40,000 that would be applied to improving awareness about mental and behavioral health services for youths living in Jefferson County. Six donors contributed $10,000 toward the summer appeal and have challenged the community to help UGN reach the $40,000 goal.


Vicki Kirkpatrick, director of Jefferson County Public Health, shared information from research studies about how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have negative and long-lasting effects on health and well-being.

These ACEs include traumatic events ranging from physical, emotional or sexual abuse to parental divorce or incarceration. According to Kirkpatrick, studies show that ACEs are powerful determinants of future health and can impact people from all walks of life.

Adverse experiences may overlap and can add up over time. The more adverse experiences a child has (ACE score), the greater the risk of mental, physical, behavioral, productivity and social crises in adulthood, Kirkpatrick noted. Jefferson County ranks sixth in the state for the percentage of adults with three or more adverse childhood experiences, and 10 to 11 percent of Jefferson County adults have had six or more adverse experiences in childhood.

In most Washington counties, including Jefferson, younger adults have higher ACEs scores than older adults, according to the UGN press release.

The research on ACE has also identified social factors that can improve outcomes for children and adults. Youths and adults who feel socially and emotionally supported and hopeful have better mental and physical health outcomes, according to the press release. Just knowing two or more people who can give concrete help when needed can help combat the effects of ACEs.


This is true for Jenna Heil, a peer counselor for Discovery Behavioral Healthcare who had struggled with depression and substance abuse throughout her teen years and into adulthood. Her therapist at Discovery Behavioral Healthcare was pivotal on her road to successful recovery, according to Heil.

“My initial therapist worked with me for almost two years, helping me through some of the worst periods,” Heil said in a press release. “She helped me stay focused on recovery. When I graduated from Drug Court (alongside my husband, who was in Drug Court at the same time), my case manager at JMHS [Jefferson Mental Health Services, now Discovery Behavioral Healthcare] suggested that I would be a great peer counselor. After years of struggling with mental illness, I had learned to be an advocate for myself, so peer counseling is a good fit for me.”

At the community level, being able to ask for help from friends and neighbors; watching out for children as a community and intervening when they are in trouble; and doing favors for one another, helps prevent problems later on in life, according to the press release.

The open discussion following Kirkpatrick’s presentation was animated, and much of the discussion reflected the information she shared; community members brought in perspectives from law enforcement, the justice system, mental health professions and the community at large.

"There's an undeniably powerful relationship between our emotional experiences as children and our mental and physical health as adolescents and adults,” said Kris Becker, executive director of Jumping Mouse Children’s Center, in a press release. “Children's well-being is essential for a healthy community where everyone has opportunities to heal and thrive."


One community member asked whether Port Townsend's large population of retirees could be engaged as mentors for community youths.

When the conversation concluded, many people left wanting more time to explore this issue. “United Good Neighbors will continue to engage the community in conversation on this issue,” Russell said.

“This is an important conversation for me, because I was once a youth who struggled with mental health as well as substance abuse problems, said Heil. “I think it's important to give the youth in our community a voice as well as the resources and services they need. It can make all of the difference in a child's life to feel like they are valued and supported.”

Ken Dane, a UGN board member said, “This first conversation demonstrated the interest in the community and the evident commitment of so many people from different institutions to addressing this problem. It was very gratifying to see.”

UGN hopes to explore additional questions through the community conversation process, such as: How can we strengthen the social safety net for our kids? How can we come together to provide the social and emotional support and concrete help for our children and youths? How can we look out for one another as a community?

United Good Neighbors of Jefferson County is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that helps provide funding for, and raise awareness of, critical social services in our community.


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