NORTH ADAMS — Young people are struggling to cope across the country — including in the Berkshires. But amid high demand for counseling, help is hard to find.

A new program in North Adams is doing what it can to fill the gap, as teens confront issues like stress and isolation.

At the Brien Center in Pittsfield, 300 names are on waiting lists for youth services. The delay in getting outpatient care is now running four months.

Most of Anelia Ziaja’s time in high school has been during the pandemic, which hit when she was a freshman at Hoosac Valley Regional in Cheshire.

“It took away a piece of our childhood,” said Ziaja, 17. “We are still being affected by the isolation.”

reads “constant existential crisis is written”

One of the drawings created by a teen girl at an art therapy workshop at the ROOTS Northern Berkshire Teen Center. 

Alexa Macdonald, 18, says people her age want help coping with anxiety, stress and other challenges. Amid the pandemic, she’s seen people her age do unhealthy things. She is president of the Youth Board of the ROOTS Teen Center in North Adams.

“I know a lot of teenagers are going to JUULs,” she said, referring to a brand of e-cigarettes, “and vapes and alcohol. Kids are antsy. They don’t know what to do.”

Alexa Macdonald poses in the Roots Teen Center

Alexa Macdonald is the youth board leader at the ROOTS Teen Center in North Adams.

When the pandemic started, Macdonald got used to a slower pace of life, spending more time hiking and painting. When activities returned to in-person, she felt overwhelmed — leading her mental health to take a hit. Macdonald worked on building social connections and tried therapy, but didn’t connect with her therapist.

During the pandemic, symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues increased among young people, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote late last year in an advisory. About a third of high school students said they had poor mental health during the pandemic and 44 percent said they felt persistently sad or hopeless over the previous year, 2021 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show.


“These data echo a cry for help,” CDC Acting Principal Deputy Director Debra Houry said this spring. “Our research shows that surrounding youth with the proper support can reverse these trends and help our youth now and in the future.”

The pandemic isn’t entirely to blame. In 2019, more than a third of high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a 40-percent increase from 2009, according to data from the CDC. The number of students that reported making a suicide plan increased by 44 percent in that same time period, CDC data show.

In the Berkshires, some report long waits for therapy. A major provider of behavioral health services for lower-income residents has been severely understaffed.

In the northern Berkshires, therapists and those who work with young people are running groups to help meet some of the demand.

This month, ROOTS Teen Center began mental health programs for small groups of young people with clinicians from Optimal Healing, a therapy and health center in North Adams.

Teens were asking for support, said Lindsey Bush, the center’s executive director. “We just keep hearing, ‘Well, I can get into therapy, but I can’t get in for two months,’ or ‘My insurance won’t pay for it,’ or ‘My parents can’t afford it.’”

Bush stands outside of the center

Lindsey Bush is the executive director of the ROOTS Northern Berkshire Teen Center on Ashland Street in North Adams. 

During the pandemic, Bush saw young people take on roles for which they may not have been ready, like caring for younger siblings while their parents worked.

“I think a lot of what we’re expecting from teenagers right now is actually very unfair, because a lot of the adults are struggling,” Bush said. “And teenagers are learning to be adults. And if they’re watching the adults in their lives struggle with all of these things, how can they be expected to be well and do better?”

‘It’s a tragedy’

Resources for children and teens are in high demand.

Young people make up about 80 percent of Ashley Benson’s caseload at Optimal Healing in North Adams, where she is the owner and a licensed independent clinical social worker. When the group added a provider in the spring, that person’s caseload filled up in just a few weeks. During the pandemic, Benson transitioned from working independently to running Optimal Healing.

“It’s a little bit hard to compare, but I would get a couple calls a week, pre-pandemic, and then now it’s daily,” she said late this spring. “We’re tapped out, we have to say.”

In July, they had space again for new clients, after adding staff, Benson said.

“There’s not enough providers in our area,” she said, adding that it seems to be a problem in many places. “Telehealth helps offset some of that, but not all of it. We’ve been trying to recruit to get more therapists here. And even the outcome of that recruitment is pretty slow. There’s not droves of people coming to the Berkshires.”

Benson stands in front of the Roots Teen Center sign

Ashley Benson is the owner of Optimal Healing.

Suzanne Kresiak turns people away weekly from her Pittsfield private practice. “And I have nobody to refer them to because everyone is full all the time,” she said. She splits her time between working with youth and adults. “I end up taking on more clients, and seeing them less frequently than is ideal, in order to try to get help to the kids who need it most.”

At the Brien Center, Kresiak directs a home-based therapeutic program that is a “last chance” for young people at risk of long-term hospitalization or residential treatment, and also helps kids reintegrate into the community after long-term treatment.

The program’s contract with the Department of Mental Health allows it to serve up to 12 families, but because of staffing shortages, the program is helping only eight families, Kresiak said. People who need the service but can’t get in end up going to the emergency room or calling the police, she said.

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“If that goes on long enough, somebody will get DCF (the Department of Children and Families) involved and then they’ll do something,” Kresiak said. “It’s a very roundabout way. And it’s a tragedy.”

Parent’s experience

This spring, all four of Richell Luckey’s kids, who have ADHD, anxiety, and autism, were on the waiting list for services at the Brien Center.

Her daughter, who has autism, worked with two therapists through the Brien Center, but both of those clinicians left after their internships ended, putting her daughter back on the waiting list. “I am worried that it may get to the point where she’s gonna be like, ‘Why should I even keep going back if people keep leaving?’” Luckey said.

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It takes an average of 15 weeks for young people on waiting lists to start ongoing therapy with the state’s safety net organizations for behavioral healthcare services, according to a survey last year by the Association for Behavioral Healthcare, a group that advocates for community-based mental health and addiction treatment services.

“Being a parent and not being able to provide that help that you so desperately know that they need, that you want to provide, it’s really hard,” Luckey said. But she also understands firsthand why organizations are squeezed — at the time, she worked as a family partner at the Brien Center, where 20 percent of the jobs are vacant, according to president and CEO Christine Macbeth.

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“It’s a nationwide crisis,” Macbeth said. “There’s hundreds on the wait list for the kids’ program, the same in my adult program,” she said. “So these are people that may not be in a behavioral health crisis in the moment, but because they can’t seek the services, they more times than not will end up in a behavioral health crisis.”

Waiting lists are not new, Macbeth said, but they are longer and the center has less staff. Macbeth wants to pay her staff more, but struggles to do so because of state-set reimbursement rates. The center’s budget is about half state contracts and half third-party insurance reimbursement — mostly MassHealth or Medicare, she said.

By July, Luckey’s daugther was able to get in to see a therapist, she said.

Group programsOn a recent afternoon at ROOTS, teens played air hockey while others painted designs on the building’s windows. The center, housed in a former pharmacy on Ashland Street, has a TV to watch movies, a stocked bookshelf, stacks of board games, and a table with craft supplies.

reads” celebrities I love but will never know I exist.”

One of the drawings created by a teen girl at an art therapy workshop at the ROOTS Northern Berkshire Teen Center. 

This month, Optimal Healing began group therapeutic programs in the space.

“Group work is where we’re headed in terms of trying to fill the gap,” said Benson, owner of Optimal Healing and a member of the ROOTS Board of Directors.

At Hoosac Valley Regional this spring, Optimal Healing tried a new group program with weekly meetings of three small groups divided by age. Groups started by talking about issues like how to set good boundaries and what to do when there’s a problem with friends on social media. They moved on to heavier topics like anxiety and depression, and skills to manage those things, Benson said.

More young people are struggling with issues like depression and anxiety, said Courtney Bopp, a school psychologist with the Hoosac Valley Regional school district who is helping coordinate the group programming.

Megan conducts a workshop

Megan Heath, LCSW, conducts an art therapy workshop at the ROOTS Northern Berkshire Teen Center. 

After Bopp does an assessment and evaluation, she gives parents a list of providers in the community. “I know last year there were parents saying wait lists were a year or a year and a half out. They were feeling really hopeless … Unfortunately, there are a lot of limitations in the area.”

This coming school year, the therapeutic groups will continue at the school, Bopp said. “I’m just really excited that we’re doing this at Hoosac. I think it’s pretty groundbreaking in this area to have something this big happening in the schools for mental health.”

A clinical social worker is leading a therapeutic group for eight weeks at ROOTS this summer, a program ROOTS is making free with grant funding. It is also offering an art therapy group led by clinicians that families are paying for, Bush said.

The center is trying out the programming this summer. Bush hopes it will continue in the school year.

Flyer for art therapy

A flyer for art therapy at ROOTS Teen Center

Green Modern Math Class Instagram Post

Flyer for “Real Talk” at the ROOTS Teen Center.

Groups are run by mental health professionals but are not one-on-one counseling. Still, they give teens skills and techniques they could get from therapy. If Benson hears from a pediatrician about a teen who may need therapy but providers are not available, they could join a group while they wait, she said.

Whether it’s at ROOTS Teen Center or Optimal Healing’s space, there’s already a waiting list for group art therapy in the fall, Benson said about a week after the first group session. And she’s thinking about other possible sessions, like an anger management group.

Optimal Healing will also start work with Mount Greylock Regional School in the fall to help the student support team — which includes social workers and guidance counselors — to develop a small group program that can become self-sustaining, said Principal Jacob Schutz.

Ziaja and Macdonald, the North County teens, are glad adults are paying more attention.

“I think there’s a lot more awareness,” said Macdonald. Ziaja agreed. “It took a global pandemic to realize the issues going on.”



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