Hands-on healing

Date: 11/14/2019

New approaches to behavioral care help Maine kids thrive

BY3A4490.jpgBuilding teamwork by conquering a ropes course. Overcoming personal fear by scaling a rock wall. Connecting with nature by growing zucchini and learning how to compost food waste.

For most kids, this sounds like a dream summer. For the children and adolescents at Northern Light Acadia Hospital’s Pediatric Behavioral Care Program, these activities are part of the therapeutic care that helps them succeed at home, at school, and in the community.

“Kids learn more when they’re having fun and when they’re engaged,” says Shane “Mack” McPherson, a psychiatric technician at Acadia Hospital. “So, we do a lot of adventure and leisure-based learning here. It’s just one part of their care, but it really makes a difference.”

Acadia Hospital’s day treatment program serves between 20 and 60 children and adolescents during the school year, and as many as 120 kids in the summer. During the school year, kids typically stay in the program for four to six weeks before returning to the classroom. Kids in the summer program usually attend through the entire school break.

The therapy garden has been one of the most important enhancements to Acadia Hospital’s program, serving as a calming space for hundreds of kids since it came to life four years ago. Kids take the lead in watering, weeding, and harvesting the crops while learning about responsibility and accountability.

Non-traditional therapies like yoga, arts and crafts, robot-assisted pet therapy, and music supplement the care provided in individual therapy and small group sessions with clinicians. The kids begin the morning by setting goals, and they track their progress throughout the day.

“Adventure-based activities contrast with the very peaceful mindfulness of a garden,” adds Mack. “If a kid is exhilarated because he just met his goal, instead of getting too anxious about meeting that goal, he can take a mindful walk through the garden and help that transition. And it often works better than fluorescent light and desks.”

Mack notes that while Acadia’s approach has been highly successful, there is also a structured school-like component to the program.

“The ultimate goal is to get kids back to their normal routines,” says Mack. “All of our successes and what we’ve found works is passed on to their families and the schools they’re returning to.”

Since 2014, the adventure and leisure-based learning opportunities in the program have benefitted from a special endowment created by Walt and Lianne Harris of Belfast, formerly of Orono. The Harris’s were inspired to give because of their own family’s experience with mental illnesses and their deep ties to Acadia Hospital and the community.

“Acadia Hospital serves not only the Bangor region, but a significant rural population,” says Lianne. “For children in particular, this is the only place to receive these services in northern and eastern Maine. We’re acutely aware that there is a great need for child and adolescent psychiatric services, and this endowment provides important resources that are not covered through insurance.”

The family’s endowment has funded adventure-based therapy training for staff, annual improvements to the garden, arts and crafts supplies, and many other enhancements that have helped staff go above and beyond in caring for their patients. It’s a gift that touches the lives of thousands of children and inspires staff and clinicians.

“The Harris’s support of Acadia Hospital helps us provide care that might otherwise be unavailable to some of the most vulnerable people in our community,” says Scott Oxley, president, Acadia Hospital. “Their support serves as a powerful example for others to follow. We want nothing but the best for the kids so they can grow up to be confident, successful adults. The Harris endowment is one of the tools that helps us achieve that goal. We’re inspired by their generosity and commitment to the children and adolescents in our community.”