Sammy loves art and writing, is learning to play guitar, and recently started playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) with friends – a game where she can use her imagination in epic fantasy worlds full of adventure. For the 13-year-old teen, these experiences were not something she would have even imagined herself doing at this time last year.
After Sammy’s parents divorced, she started experiencing feelings of depression. The persistent sadness eventually escalated to self-harm, and Sammy would cut herself with a pocketknife. That went on for a couple years before a friend’s mom noticed the signs and brought it up with Sammy’s mom Angela.
“When I first started hurting myself, I was trying to hide it,” said Sammy. “But around seventh grade I wasn’t hiding it anymore. I think I was wishing someone would notice, I wanted to get help, but I didn’t know how to ask for it.”
Angela also knew Sammy needed help, but felt completely lost and helpless herself, unsure of where to turn. “It’s scary for a parent when you don’t know the best way to help your child,” said Angela. Sammy was already seeing a therapist, but that wasn’t enough to keep her from engaging in self-harm behaviors. Angela talked to Sammy’s therapist, who used to work at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI) in a program called Teenscope. The therapist recommended that Angela look into it.
“Teenscope is a day treatment facility that provides a unique level of care,” said Ryan Hamilton, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist at Teenscope. Most people are familiar with traditional talk therapy, where patients meet with a therapist weekly or monthly for about an hour. Many are also familiar with inpatient therapy, where patients stay 24 hours a day in a hospital facility and have round-the-clock supervised care.
Teenscope falls somewhere between these two treatment options. Teens between the ages of 13 and 17 spend weekdays in the program from 8:30 to 3:30, then go home in the evenings and on weekends. The average length of time in the program is about five to six weeks, although it could be longer or shorter depending on a person’s individual needs. The Teenscope program is available at the main University of Utah campus in Research Park, and at a South Salt Lake location (Teenscope South).
HMHI also has a day treatment program for younger children called Kidstar. The team of board-certified child/adolescent psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, expressive therapists, and education specialists help children ages 5 to 12 with emotional and behavioral challenges.
“Day treatment programs provide support for emotional needs and mental health issues with a focus on skill-building and socializing with peers,” said Hamilton. “Participants learn specific skills they can practice in real-world situations and come back the next day to talk about it. That immediate feedback helps them understand how to effectively apply skills and improve over time.”
At the drop-off on her first day at Teenscope, Angela hoped Sammy would find a place where she could be herself and not worry about what others thought or what others expected of her (especially since a lot of Sammy’s anxiety came from her desire to please everyone). Angela had no idea just how much personal growth Sammy would experience in those few weeks.
But the changes didn’t happen right away. Sammy remembers her first group therapy session with several other teens sitting together and introducing themselves. The sessions are set up to allow teens to share as much or as little as they want, but Sammy wasn’t ready to open up completely on that first day. “I did end up saying why I was there, but it was a deep breaths and clenched teeth type of deal,” said Sammy. After she shared, the group had a chance to provide some of their own advice. That process of hearing about other teens going through similar experiences was empowering and helped Sammy to feel less alone.
The program incorporates a variety of activities designed to help teens learn valuable coping, problem-solving, and life skills. That includes individual and group therapy sessions, as well as activities like music therapy, recreational therapy (games and physical activities), art therapy, pet therapy, team-building activities, and more.
“The activities teens engage in here are more than just things to fill the time,” said Hamilton. “Everything we do has a therapeutic value.” For example, most people listen to music, but during music therapy sessions the patients learn about how music impacts their emotions. They discover how to be intentional about the type of music they listen to when they feel a certain way, empowering them to use music to overcome challenges or relieve stress.
One particularly useful skill Sammy picked up was something she calls TIPP. When she starts to have thoughts about self-harm or feels overwhelmed or stressed, she does one of the TIPP activities:
Temperature: Taking a cold shower
Intense exercise: Going out for a run or other physical activity
Paced breathing: Do breathwork exercises
Progressive muscle relaxation: Participate in a guided or unguided meditation
She also learned about the importance of setting goals. Each day Teenscope participants are expected to set a goal, and the next day they report on progress or discuss challenges. Other “homework” assignments in the program included keeping a journal about how she was feeling and whether she was experiencing intrusive thoughts. Her early goals centered around creating a safety plan, but later in the program she started setting her sights on changing how she interacts with her social circles and peers.
The “core group” therapy sessions are a very important part of the Teenscope experience, says Hamilton. “Often the patients who come here haven’t shared much of their story with other people,” he said. “The group setting is an opportunity to learn and grow through hearing about others’ experiencing and relating them to their own experience. They also get feedback on how they approached specific situations, and how they might do it differently in the future.”
That peer culture is also key to helping teens in the program recognize they are not alone. What they are experiencing is not so unique that nobody else could understand. “They learn that we all have different experiences and come from different backgrounds and life circumstances, but we can find some commonality and relate to each other,” said Hamilton.
A final aspect of the program that differentiates it from traditional talk therapy is the level of family involvement. Therapists coordinate a family therapy session with parents or guardians once a week during the program but can include more if needed. During Sammy’s treatment she experienced a relapse and went back to some of her self-harm behaviors. The counselors immediately involved Angela so they could all help Sammy figure out ways to communicate what she was feeling and what she needs in the future, to avoid falling back into old behaviors.
“As a parent you don’t know what that experience will be like [when your child relapses],” said Hamilton. Teenscope therapists help parents understand that it could happen, then equip them and their child with skills to effectively intervene. “We recognize that it happened, then talk about what we can learn, or where we can improve safety plans. If teens feel overwhelmed and anxious, what can we do? It sounds simple, but a challenge for many young people is being open and honest to say when they need help or are struggling. We want them to recognize they can talk about difficult things; they are not bad or broken – it’s ok to have these thoughts.”
When the time came for Sammy’s discharge, she had come to really enjoy and love the people and the Teenscope program. That is pretty standard, says Hamilton, even when a teen enters the program and wants nothing to do with it at first (which is also pretty common).
“I loved everyone who was there,” she said. “When I had to leave, I almost cried, honestly. I was very close with all the kids.” She and the others made up a dance together to perform before she left, choreographing it to Lady Gaga’s song Bad Romance. “It definitely helped with my social anxiety and learning how to cope with people,” said Sammy. “I learned that people can love you even if they know what you’ve been through.”
Sammy’s confidence in social situations soared after her discharge. “I used to sit alone at lunch and purposely avoid people,” she said. “But now I sit in groups of 10 people or more. I feel like I can trust people more because I know that we are all going through things, I’m not totally alone in that.”
She also learned how to ask for help when she needed it – whether that was on her schoolwork, or in her personal life. Angela noticed a big difference in her confidence level and personality too. Previously she would avoid any place where she might have to interact with others. Now Sammy is open to making connections and found a group of friends she can spend time with. She sits with them at lunch, walks home from school with them, and plans activities on the weekends like small parties or D&D games. From where she was before to where she is today is night and day difference.
“She really is an incredible person, and I want people to get to know the real Sammy,” said Angela, who credits Teenscope with bringing out that confidence in Sammy. “You could tell they really cared about my child; they communicated so well. I was really impressed with the time and effort they took with us. I knew my child had the support she needed.”
The Teenscope and Teenscope South programs are open to anyone between the ages of 13 and 17 who needs a higher level of treatment than traditional therapy but may not need the intensive support of residential inpatient treatment. If you think your child might need help, call HMHI at 801-583-2500, or call Teenscope directly at 801-587-3224.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis and needs help right away, call 1-800-273-8255 or send a text to 988.