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Program offering free mental health support for youth aims to create future mental health pros

Program offering free mental health support for youth aims to create future mental health pros

This entry in the Nonprofit Journal Project is part of a series of articles about how Michigan health care professionals are responding to the state’s health care workforce shortage. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

A new program dreamed up by a Detroit teen is offering free mental health services for young people – and seeking to inspire them to help others by pursuing mental health careers.

That initiative, the Mentally Fit Program, is hosted by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan (BGCSM). It brings together universities, a health care system, and doctoral clinical psychology and social work students. The collaboration provides mental health support for BGCSM members, professional development experience for students, and aims to eventually expand the behavioral health workforce available to support Detroit youth.
The idea for The Mentally Fit Program was conceived by BGCSM member Jeremiah Green. He was struggling with anxiety and depression — and wanted to see Boys and Girls Clubs address youth mental health issues. So he began advocating for behavioral health services in the clubs. Green brought his message to BGCSM locations and spoke before the board of directors.

Jeremiah Green.
Because of Green’s efforts — and a $1.1 million Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant — the program was launched with Dr. Tiffany Abrego at the helm. A Wayne State University (WSU) associate professor of psychology and licensed psychologist, Abrego now serves as BGCSM executive director of behavioral health. Other partners collaborating on the program include  Children’s Hospital of Michigan, University of Detroit Mercy, University of Michigan School of Psychology, and WSU.
We spoke with Dr. Abrego about this unique approach to building the behavioral health workforce in Detroit.
Q: Why is it important that Detroit youth have more access to behavioral health services?
A: If you try to find mental health services in this area — and I know because I also work at Wayne State — waitlists are months and months long. Even the smallest fee for a community clinic like Wayne State’s is still unaffordable for some of our families.

Dr. Tiffany Abrego.
All of our services are free of charge. We do not take any insurance. They do have to be Boys and Girls Club members, but membership is only $25 for the year. And they can get scholarships for membership. We do not take any insurance. They can get transportation to and from the club. We’re eliminating as many barriers as possible so that our youth and families can access free and appropriate services.
One of the things that Jeremiah Green really emphasized was that there still is such a stigma among young people and in the Black community. Our Boys and Girls Clubs’ mission is to have behavioral health embedded in every single thing we do, so that it really does eliminate that stigma. So from age six, kids are getting therapy, they’re having therapy groups, and they know who we are. We’re not this separate team that comes in and does special services. We’re staff members. The kids know us. This makes the access way better.
Q: How are youth referred to services?
A: Last year, we saw 713 youths. This year, we are on par for more than 1,200. One of the other ways that we’re connected to Children’s Hospital of Michigan is through its referral system. They refer kiddos who need some behavioral health services and can’t access them through the health system. We also get referrals from schools. They refer to us if a kiddo isn’t able to access services in the school setting. The school social workers we’ve talked to are very busy. They have their hands full. A lot of them aren’t able to provide the one-on-one interaction that’s needed so they refer them over to us.
We’re also in the process of partnering with our feeder schools from the Boys and Girls Clubs areas. And we will be providing on-site services at schools — presentations to groups and staff trainings.
We also have a sports psychology program that is going to be launching this year, as well. It’s about the toxic environment of sports that our youth are brought up in. We’re really hoping to change that perspective for parents, coaches, and kids. We have over 13,000 youth in sports teams at Boys and Girls Clubs Southeast Michigan.
We partner with schools. We partner with families. We partner with the executive team, with the staff, with everyone because we want to make a systemic change.
Q: What about the doctoral clinical psychology and social work students working with the Mentally Fit Program?
A: In August, we accepted our first cohort of clinical psychology doctoral students. We have six doctoral students on staff. We are recruiting next year for an additional two students. We have two social work students as well, and we have partnered with the University of Detroit Mercy to hire additional social work students. Our HRSA grant also covers our didactics so that we can have students and staff trained for things like substance use disorders and other things like that.
They provide individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, staff consultation, staff training, staff support groups, and psychological testing — pretty much all the services that a mental health facility does, but instead we’re an after-school program.
We are interviewing right now for our next year’s cohort. At least three of our students who interviewed for next year’s positions are former Boys and Girls Clubs members. This unique model of being in a community-based setting and having mental health services in the community is really something that should be done in a lot of other places.

Dr. Tiffany Abrego and Jeremiah Green.
Q: How will the Mentally Fit Program help develop the future behavioral health workforce beyond and outside of the program itself? 

A: The hope with launching our programming was to lower the stigma around mental health services and really embed these services into the program so mental health language is normalized and a part of their every day. With the launching of our high school internship with our department this spring, we are hoping to expose our teens to the career of behavioral health and to open their minds to the possibility of working in a mental health-related field. 

Q: Do you think the program will encourage more young people to enter the mental health professions? 

A: I definitely think that when youth are exposed to mental health language and stigma is reduced, they see the value in these professions. Especially with our behavioral health-related internship, I believe this will encourage more youth to enter into the behavioral health fields.

Q: Do you think the program will address the specific shortages felt in the Detroit area long-term? 

A: It is a long-term goal. I think a lot of change in funding and policy needs to also occur to address some of these shortages, but the goal is that these youth can help to advocate for those needed changes and address some of the shortages.

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children’s books. You can contact her at [email protected] or

Photos by Steve Koss.

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