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Behind the Scenes: Opening Up the Virtual Life Skills Center

By Lacey Cukier, LICSW, Program Director, Riverside Life Skills Center Somerville:

Just as we were preparing to open our new Life Skills Center in our renovated building in Somerville, the pandemic swept our country, leaving us with very few conceivable options. That’s when we decided we had to take our program virtual. It was no easy task, but the talented and capable team of our newly-formed Life Skills Center was up for the challenge.

Life Skills is a supportive, therapeutic program for adolescents, ages 12-18 years, who are experiencing significant emotional difficulties or a psychiatric diagnosis and who are having disruptions in their home, school, or community. Our Somerville program joins established Life Skills Centers in Needham and Milford.

With schools and businesses shutting down rapidly in mid-March, we knew that the schedule we laid out for in-person programming had to be modified to fit the digital format. The Somerville team worked together to come up with a new schedule and the therapeutic programming to support it. Next we reached out to youth who had been on waitlists at our other Life Skills programs. While a virtual program wasn’t for everyone, several were ready to start!

Things began well, with the teens even choosing to attend optional sessions. However, as the week went on, they expressed they were exhausted from the amount of online therapeutic programs – aka, “Zoom fatigue.” The team then drafted a brand new schedule, which we presented to the group for their input. With their feedback, we were able to implement the new schedule the very next Monday.

Today, the program offers morning and afternoon therapeutic groups, which successfully help the teens process lived experiences, build skills to allow for transition to an academic setting, and, most importantly, find peer support. Process-based groups allow them to explore topics such as symptom management and survival, family conflict, and recovery. Skills-based topics range from social skills, distress tolerance, mindfulness, and emotional regulation, to journaling, therapeutic art projects, and reflective poetry writing.

At the end of the week, the teens receive support from a Riverside Peer Mentor – a young adult who has had similar experiences in the mental health system as a teen. This staff member sets a positive example of effecting change within the system and allows them to ask honest questions about the path to recovery.

The feedback we have received has been rewarding and helpful as we move ahead. One youth stated they gain the most from the expressive therapy groups and mindfulness, while another reports they feel most connected to the social skills-based groups. As one participant put it, “I don’t think there has been a group that hasn’t been helpful [to me].” As we come to the end the first month of our new programming, the teens report that they are already seeing the benefits.

With the work that has gone into developing this new model, and its success so far, we’re ready to welcome more young people to our program. We are taking referrals from the Metro Boston area and especially want to help adolescents who may be experiencing symptoms of early psychosis.

Once we can move into our new building on Summer Street in Somerville, we expect to expand our programming to include community-based outings, a therapeutic milieu (a structured environment that creates a safe, secure place for people who are in therapy), and many other social events. For the time being, however, we have found creative and flexible ways to engage our youth and help them grow.

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