Someone to Listen // Bainbridge Youth Services Meets Teens Where They Are

By Nancy Goll

In a cluster of offices on the Bainbridge High School campus, a small team of therapists helps teenage clients navigate—and in some cases, survive—the jumble of academic, personal, social and family stresses that typify the teen years. Bainbridge Youth Services (BYS), which marked its 50th year in 2012, is the state’s only provider of free, confidential counseling by licensed therapists for youths aged 12 to 19. Its mission is to “promote the social and emotional well-being of all community adolescents.”

The BYS counseling program is unique not just because it’s free, but because it gives young people the opportunity to decide they want to seek therapy and to manage the process themselves. “It’s very empowering for teens to have control over their own therapy,” said Tara Murphy, a BYS counselor. In traditional therapeutic settings, parents are automatically involved because they’re paying the bills.

“When teens use our services, their parents don’t have to know they’re coming to us,” she said. And it’s that confidentiality that often makes the difference as to whether a teen will seek help. The counselors also see students on-site at Woodward Middle, Sakai Intermediate and Eagle Harbor High schools. Parents are welcome to use the service, either with or without their children, and out-of-school teens are also welcome.

Over the last five years, 436 teens have received help with: peer problems (28 percent), anxiety and depression (27 percent), family issues (25 percent), school-related problems (13 percent), and personal crises (7 percent). Clients who need further help or medical intervention are referred to the appropriate professionals.

“I come to BYS because there are things I’m working through that I don’t feel I can talk to my parents about,” said one client. “Just knowing someone is there to listen makes every day better.” Another teen wrote, “I have struggled with anorexia, depression, a suicide attempt and being sexually assaulted. BYS was a great resource for me.”

The center also offers workshops, support groups and retreats. Over the next few months it will co-host several summits at which teens and adults will discuss the results of a recent district-wide mental health survey and how to address the respondents’ needs.

With its focus on the whole person, BYS goes beyond therapy by offering other services and programs such as an employment program, the annual Compassionate Action Awards and educational grants. Through the employment program, BYS has filled nearly 500 jobs posted by individuals or organizations in the last five years.

“To have a kid from BYS help out with some task is actually about building community just as much as it’s about saving your sanity,” said Meg Mitchell, who used the program. “You might be that child’s first work experience. What a privilege and honor!”

Each November the Compassionate Action Awards “recognize excellence of character, particularly acts of generosity, courage, integrity and stewardship.” Last year’s honorees included a young man who used his cooking talents to raise money for a Parkinson’s foundation and Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Educational grants help students pursue special talents or passions, “especially in the midst of life’s challenges.” BYS awarded seven grants during the last school year. Executive Director Marina Cofer-Wildsmith said BYS is creating new ways to reach even more teens. “How do we meet them where they are and ensure they have the tools to get through their teen years?” Part of the answer is a social media campaign that will employ both texting and web-based tools.

The program, which includes Q&A forums Ask the Counselor and Ask the Doctor, is being developed in partnership with the Rotary Club and Virginia Mason. Running through all of BYS’ efforts is the spirit of acceptance without judgment. “The most important thing to teens is not feeling judged,” Tara Murphy said. “They have excellent radar for authenticity.”

Someone to Listen Bainbridge Youth Services Meets Teens Where They Are