Therapy On The Beach: Program Targets Youth Mental Health Crisis On Maui With Mobile Counseling

The provision of mental health support for children, particularly in the aftermath of traumatic events such as wildfires, is a complex issue that involves several factors.

One notable case is a young girl from Lahaina, Maui, who was deeply affected by the wildfires that occurred in August 2023. During an art therapy session for fire survivors, she broke down when asked to paint the Lahainaluna “L,” a symbol that reminded her of the traumatic escape from the fire. Another child, who lost his toys related to emergency responders, now avoids anything related to them.

The wildfires have exacerbated the already strained mental health system on West Maui. The offices of one of the region’s main mental health care providers were incinerated, and transportation problems have arisen for those who lost their homes and vehicles.

Mental health providers on Maui anticipate that the adolescent mental health crisis will continue to escalate, with some only beginning to see the repercussions of last August’s wildfires on the psyches of young people.

Online therapy and short-term help from fly-in providers from other states have helped boost the availability of youth mental health treatment, but some experts and advocates criticize these methods as subpar to in-person care from a local provider.

To address these challenges, initiatives like Malama Na Keiki have been launched. This program, funded by Sentry Insurance Foundation and managed by Maui United Way, sends out small teams of mental health counselors to meet with youth in their natural environment, such as their homes, schools, or favorite hangout spots.

Children may develop emotional or behavioral changes after trauma, including clinginess, anxiety, aggression, withdrawal, or changes in eating or sleeping patterns. Reminders of the trauma can trigger overwhelming emotions.

Some children who are struggling feel they should have healed and moved on by now, leading to feelings of isolation and guilt. They may compare their experiences to others and downplay their own struggles.

Access to mental health services is a significant issue, with a severe shortage of mental health workers, particularly those qualified to treat children. Additionally, many children aren’t receiving help because they aren’t asking for it, often due to stigma or a lack of understanding about the benefits of talking to a professional.

Some children aren’t reaching out to teachers and school counselors because the adults in their household have minimized their mental health struggles. Others struggle with survivor’s guilt, reluctant to seek help due to comparisons with others’ experiences.

Finally, some students didn’t return to school after the fire, either due to safety concerns or other reasons. These children have been isolated and are dealing with their own mental health issues, as well as those of their parents and other family members.

Delivering services to youth in their comfortable and convenient environments helps solve transportation problems, as many families have lost vehicles in the fires. Demand for clinical care in West Maui is high, with long wait lists, and efforts are being made to increase the availability of locally available psychological support.

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