The Here and Now Prom
Rick Springfield’s "Jessie’s Girl" belts out from the speakers in a large room covered in crepe paper decorations and a rainbow of streamers strung across the ceiling. The snack table is full and close by, ice cubes bob in a pool of red punch. Shy wallflowers mingle and watch the dance floor as party goers try and shake their adolescent awkwardness. This could be the scene of any high school prom, but this one was a little different. This prom was held at Northern Light Acadia Hospital.
The conversation began mid-May in a therapy group run by Kassie Stevens, LMSW-CC, psychiatric clinician with Inpatient Pediatrics at Northern Light Acadia Hospital. Kassie works with patients from across Maine ranging in ages from 5 to 20. This day, she met with her older group. “I teach what's called cognitive behavioral therapy that helps us understand our experiences through a triad of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.” During the group session, a patient mentioned that it was prom weekend. She was disappointed not only to miss her prom because she was in the hospital but thought she also may be crowned prom queen. It was then that two other patients said that they too would be missing their proms.
To Kassie, this posed an interesting opportunity. “In the center of the triad are our core beliefs, what we believe about ourselves,” Kassie explains. “Negative core beliefs have been instilled in these kids at a very young age. Challenging these beliefs is some of what we do in group—or as the littles call it, the ‘change-bad-thoughts group,’” she says with a smile. When the patients asked if they could hold their own prom, Kassie put the wheels in motion to create the first prom at Acadia Hospital.
Kassie says that part of the therapy work they do focuses on mindfulness, preventing catastrophic thoughts, being present in the moment, and cultivating a sense of gratitude. With those thoughts in mind, this group of teens came up with the title, the Here and Now Prom. The patients selected the food, music, and the decorations, and the staff helped turn an idea into a party.
“My primary job was putting out fires and trying to maintain the illusion of mystery for the kids,” says Evan V., psychiatric technician (psych tech) at the hospital. He adds, “Chloe and Ryan did a fantastic job, really decorating, making things look nice.” Evan, Chloe A., and Ryan B. are all psych techs at Acadia Hospital and all university students working toward various degrees in mental healthcare—they exude an undeniable passion for what they do. Closer in age to their patients than much of the staff, they have a special connection to their patients that is evident to the seasoned staff.
“I came up with a lot of little creative ideas on things we could do to make it more realistic and fun for the kids, while making sure they were safe and maintaining good boundaries,” shares Chloe. One of the coveted decorations Chloe created was a mock life-sized Instagram screen that literally reframed how the patients experienced their prom.
The day of the event, streamers of purple, pink, and yellow were strung throughout the brightly lit room. Punch and ginger ale lined a table that sat beside an abundant assortment of party snack staples including chips, dip, cookies, fruit, and cake concisely decorated with the word, “Prom.”
And you may be wondering about bringing a date. Chloe smiles and remarks, “This just isn’t the place for that.” So, she decreed to the party planners, “We're going to bring ourselves to prom—this is going to be a self-love event.” She then worked with the patients to make prom-posals to themselves such as, “Of all the fish in the sea, I choose me!”
“Everybody was out on the dance floor pretty early on,” says Evan. Kassie hit play on the Here and Now Prom streaming playlist, which included some carefully curated music mix picked by patients. Songs included, “Single Ladies,” “I’m Coming Out,” “Stronger,” “Victorious,” and “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
There were no sequins, taffeta, or tuxes to be found at this particular prom, but these teens still came in style. Some wore makeup, donned bow ties, hats, and scarves; and some asked the staff do their hair into braids and styles.
“The highlight of the party for me was awarding certificates to every one of our patients and seeing the surprise on their face,” recalls Kassie. The awards were designed specifically for each person reflective of the strengths they've shown on the unit.
Ryan remembers when all the work to create the party was realized. “The biggest moment where I was like, ‘Wow, this is definitely worth it,’ was when we had the three patients that were missing their prom receive their own prom flowers, then walk in and have their prom moment.”
Many of the adolescents who attended the Here and Now Prom hesitate to let friends know why they missed this important event at their own schools. Despite the great strides made in our culture, stigma around mental illness and seeking treatment for mental health is still present.
“The patients that we work with are some of the smartest, most talented people I've met,” says Ryan. “Every time a new patient comes in, they bring in a new skill that I've never seen or have something that makes them unique—they just happen to be struggling with depression or anxiety, or other things. That doesn't make them any less of a person. They just need love and support, and the help to get through the hard part.”
Kassie shares that giving her patients the experience at Acadia Hospital they deserve does not have to take lot of time or resources to have a powerful effect on outcomes. “Through active listening, creative problem solving, and meaningful moments, we can support each other—that goes as far as working with staff members too.” She adds, “If nothing else, we've built a prom memory that was highly positive, healthy, fun, and creative.”
Spoken with a wisdom hard to come by in people twice his age, Evan says, “The bottom line is we have an active role in deciding how we experience our lives—as adults we often forget that. But, if we can teach these lessons to adolescents, then hopefully they'll remember it when they're our age.”
Want to experience a piece of the Here and Now prom for yourself? Check out the dance-worthy playlist here: The Here and Now Prom Playlist.
To learn more about crucial youth mental health and wellness issues, we encourage you to watch our Child-Adolescent Resource and Educational Series, or CARES videos. The series follows young people as they address topics such as eating disorders, bullying, anxiety, sexual identity, substance abuse, and resiliency.