ASPIRE Program Helps Teens and Families Cope with Mental Health

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Before they enrolled in the ASPIRE program at Hoag, Erin and Richard said their 14-year-old daughter “checked all the boxes: behavioral issues, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, self-harm. We were hitting rock bottom.”

The couple had provided their daughter with cognitive behavioral therapy and other help, but it was clear she needed more. Erin resigned herself to finding an inpatient program to keep her daughter safe and to give her the care she needed. But when she began researching her options, she came across something she didn’t expect: an expert, comprehensive program that the family could access on an outpatient basis, right in their own backyard.

“I hadn’t considered that an outpatient program existed,” Erin said. “She could still go to school and be part of this program. I liked that she was going to receive therapeutic help and that the psychiatric care was packaged into it. On top of it, was the family program content. It was all the care she needed.”

ASPIRE (After School Program: Intervention and Resiliency Education) is an intensive outpatient program for teens with primary mental health disorders who might also grapple with substance abuse. Part of Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute at Hoag, the program guides teens and their families through an eight-week curriculum of skills-based training in stress management, resiliency, interpersonal communication, mental health and substance abuse education.

“The parental involvement helps parents understand what the kid is going through on an emotional level, a social level and a family-dynamic level, so that we can be a part of the healing process,” Erin said. “This level of understanding makes parents more empathetic to what’s going on. Too many of us don’t have the ability to decipher what is going on until it’s too late.”

The stresses teens face today are different than they were for their parents. The family sessions helped to provide Erin and Richard with insight into their daughter’s world as well as into her developing brain.

“We are conscious parents and had a good idea of what kids are going through now, but as we dove into it, the depths of what adolescents are dealing today became much clearer,” Erin said. “It is pretty tragic how much more difficult it is for them.”

The ASPIRE program particularly illuminated the role social media plays in teen depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.

“I think my daughter was bullied several times in horrific ways. The intensity of bullying is much more damaging these days,” she said. “It’s not just stealing lunch money anymore. People are hitting very personal buttons with these kids.”

While parents learn how best to communicate and empathize, teens in the ASPIRE program learn stress management and resiliency.

“My daughter was just not able to cope with setbacks in a healthy way,” Erin said. “I feel like for a lot of kids, on a maturity level, they are just unable to handle what is thrown at them, and that hits their self-esteem.”

As their daughter approached her graduation from the eight-week program, Erin said the ASPIRE team worked with the family to create a plan for moving forward.

“They asked us how they can help support us as we transitioned out. I told them that I was interested in group therapy and volunteer opportunities to help build my daughter’s self-worth and her connection to the community, and they’ve been helping with that,” Erin said. “They are also available on an ongoing basis, when she has a bad day, they reach out to her and check in. If I need anything, all I have to do is call. They’re incredible. The entire team.”

Erin and Richard said many of the tools they learned as a family took root and have become automatic, particularly the negotiation tools that help their daughter articulate her needs and help Erin and Richard with more effective communication.

“These things are sticking,” Erin said. “I do not feel like we are out of the woods, but I feel like we are on a path that will lead us out of the woods. I’m not walking on eggshells quite as much.”

Erin said that the ASPIRE program is well worth the time investment. The time commitment is intense, and the program requires parents to work just as hard as the teens.

“Once you jump in, you realize that it’s the best decision you can make. It’s a big change in life and schedule, but for the safety of your child, it’s almost like you can’t afford not to do it,” Erin said. “I am so glad I found it.”