Helping youth with mental illness

BY PUNEET SANDHU Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — The Federation of Families of Florida (FFF) is an organization that serves the families of youth who are involved in what’s known as the system of care, which is provided services in areas such as mental health, substance abuse, foster care and even the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

Housed in the Enoch Davis Center, 1111 18th Ave. S., the Pinellas County chapter began in 2012. They serve as a guide to help families understand and navigate the resources available in the system of care for their child.

According to the Pinellas County FFF Youth Coordinator Brandy Walker, the system of care is a spectrum of effective, community-based services and support for youth with or at-risk for mental health or other challenges and their families.

This system is organized into a coordinated network that builds meaningful partnerships with families and youth and addresses their cultural and linguistic needs in order to help them function better at home, in school, in the community and throughout life.

Often, Walker said, families may feel frustrated at navigating the systems of care while trying to ensure their children get the help they need. The FFF is made up largely of adults who are parents and who have been through the system themselves. From their own experiences, Walker said, they are able to offer a more personal approach to helping families new to these systems.

Walker said the FFF represents families at monthly system of care meetings. They bring in the youth voice to the meetings where many of the social service providers sit at the table and basically try to figure out how to create a better system for youth in this community.

“The target age group for the system of care is ages 10 to 16,” said Walker, “so we’re looking at those youth that are receiving services right now, or have in the past, to see what’s going on with the system now, what’s working and what’s not working. One of our goals is to have parents sit on some of the boards of these organizations that are running the social service systems. Another goal is to have family and youth participate in some of the policies that govern these organizations.”

The Pinellas County FFF offers advocacy and referral services to families that need assistance. They also provide several outlets for parents and youth.

FFF offers trainings to help both youth and their parents be their own advocates within the system of care. For parents, they offer the Parents on a Mission Training. Walker said they are currently recruiting parents of children up to eight years old to join the upcoming training session.

“A lot of times parents, especially in our poverty-stricken areas, they’re not used to speaking up on their own behalf and if they do, they’re not appropriate in how they do it,” Walker said.

FFF will teach them how to speak effectively, and how to be assertive rather than aggressive. For instance, they teach them how to get into the school setting where their child may be struggling behaviorally, and how to be a partner with the school for the betterment of their child. They also teach them about cultural competency, how to go out and interact with someone that may not come from their same background or socio-economic status.

Additionally, parents learn about the Individualized Educational Plan at schools for students with disabilities, and how to work with schools for an effective plan that meets their children’s needs.

Similarly, FFF offers youth a 20-hour Leadership Training where they teach them how to tell their stories, how to use their voice and communicate positively to be their own advocate.

They also teach them what their rights and responsibilities are in DJJ as they relate to mental health services, and how to communicate with doctors and parents to let them know whether or not their medications are effective.

The youth also learn about public speaking, different forms of bullying, and cultural and linguistic competency.

For fifth and sixth-grade students who have not been involved with what Walker calls “unwanted behaviors” such as promiscuity, substance abuse and fighting, FFF offers All Stars Training.

“It’s a curriculum designed to prevent those unwanted behaviors,” Walker said. “The information that is given in All Stars opens up a comfortable conversation regarding some of those behaviors and gives replacements for those behaviors.”

Once a week, the Pinellas County chapter hosts youth groups where about 30 children attend. The first hour is a study hall in which students can receive help with reading and writing. Then, Walker opens up the group for a conversation about how their week went and any issues they might be having at home or in school. The students also discuss current events and do artwork. Currently, Walker said, the youth group students are writing autobiographies.

For part of the youth group, the girls and boys split up. The girls take part in praise dance while the boys usually play sports. The older boys get a chance to learn “positivity rap” by a volunteer who is a Christian rap artist. Walker said the positivity rap and praise dance have been well received in the community as an alternative to crude music and dance styles.

FFF also offers Certified Recovery Peer Specialist-Families (CRPS-F) for parents, which is peer support training. They train parents with children in the mental health system on how to be an advocate to other parents that have children within the system.

“It’s a Florida state board test, a certification where they become an equal partner to professionals. So basically, there can be organizations that hire them on as a peer-mentor to help other families,” said Walker.

“The CRPS is someone who has had similar experiences…and they’re trained to be professional to be able to help someone else who is going through this system. So now they sit at the table as a support to this family. They may assist families with being linked to other services; they can help families understand mental health diagnoses; they may just provide a listening ear to a frustrated family.”

FFF has many partner organizations such as Children in Need of Services, Success4Kids and Project Launch. The group participates in community outreach programs at the Enoch Davis Center and also sits on the Re-Entry to Community meetings for youth transitioning back home from commitment programs.

But mainly, Walker said, FFF is there to provide support for youth and their families, whether that support involves having someone to talk to or someone as a guide for navigating the systems of care.

For more information, please call (813) 966-9676.

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