Room to grow

CHAC helps locals with addiction, mental health concerns and more

When the Mountain View-based Community Health Awareness Council celebrated the grand opening of its new headquarters this September, the event was billed as the "Miracle on El Camino."

The new building, located near the intersection of W. El Camino Real and View Street, is significantly larger than the organization's previous digs at the corner of Church and Hope streets. CHAC paid no money for the larger space, since both the old and new buildings were controlled by the same landlord, who agreed to swap locations free of charge.

The local non-profit, which focuses on delivering affordable community mental health and substance abuse services to local children, teens and adults, opened its new offices at the beginning of July, and according to CHAC representative Carrie Carstens, the new facilities have been "great."

"It has definitely been a blessing," Carstens said. "We need the space."

Due to the former building's size, Carstens said, the organization was having trouble meeting demand for services. Group meetings and classes on subjects such as parenting skills were constrained, and the limited number of individual offices meant that CHAC counselors weren't able to meet with as many people as they now can.

The Community Health Awareness Council is one of this year's beneficiaries of the Voice's annual Holiday Fund drive.

Supporting CHAC means supporting a stronger, healthier, happier community, Carstens said. The organization offers individual, couples and family counseling; psychotherapy; teen pregnancy prevention and support services; substance abuse support groups; help with diagnosing and treating learning and cognitive disabilities; and many more programs focused on improving mental health and well-being.

Assessment tools

Dr. Stewart Kiritz, chief psychologist and director of training at CHAC, runs the organization's newly established Assessment Clinic, which conducts extensive psychological assessments of local men, women, teens and children at the CHAC offices. Though the CHAC has done this kind of assessment since it was founded in 1973, they only decided to get "really serious about it" a year ago, Kiritz said.

Now they have an entire program devoted to diagnosing patients with learning disabilities and mental conditions, such as ADHD, dyslexia, depression and anxiety.

On a recent tour of CHAC's new building, Kiritz and Tess Amidan -- a Ph.D. intern with the organization -- demonstrated how they make diagnoses of patients, both young and old.

For children, the organization has two special rooms -- each filled with toy figurines of superheros, animals, cars and the like. The rooms also have a tool, developed by the famous Swiss psychotherapist, Carl Jung. It's called a "sandplay tray," and it is essentially a small box filled with sand, which the children can play with while a counselor talks to them. One of the CHAC rooms also has a number of doll houses, for play during diagnostic sessions.

Amidan explained that during a typical session, she might just watch the child for a bit, see what toys he or she chooses and how they are used. She might also give a basic direction, like ask the child to set up the empty playhouse.

The children's instinctive actions can help in rooting out psychological issues and can also serve as instructive exercises.

"If a child has two figures fighting with one another, I can ask them, 'What was that fight about?'" Amidan explained. "And I can say, 'And do you think there was a better way for that person to get his anger out?'"

For older patients, there are quite a few exercises that Kiritz and his team can use in the diagnostic process. There are short-term memory tests, like reading a list of random numbers aloud and having a patient repeat them back in order, or backwards. There are also building blocks that a patient will use to reconstruct an image printed on paper.

Since introducing the program, Kiritz said, CHAC has helped two young women who believed they had ADHD come to understand that the difficulty they were experiencing in college was rooted in two entirely separate problems.

In the first case, Kiritz explained, the woman had above average mental capacity, but was experiencing depression and anxiety, which were interfering with her ability to focus. After this diagnosis, they began working on a plan to help her deal with her depression and overcome her anxiety.

In the second situation, the student was also having trouble in her classes. And again, she came to CHAC with the assumption that she had ADHD -- "ADHD is over-diagnosed now," Kiritz said. "Everyone thinks they have ADHD.

It turned out that the young woman was having trouble with her short-term memory, which may have to do with a head injury she sustained as a girl.

Diagnosis is empowering, Kiritz said. It allows people to move forward toward solving their issues.

But diagnosis is also expensive and time consuming -- at least it can be at private clinics. According to Kiritz, it is "significantly" cheaper to be assessed at CHAC, where there's a sliding scale based on an individual's ability to pay. They also employ graduate student interns who help conduct assessments, which helps the whole process move faster.

'Well Within'

Veronica Foster, program director of CHAC's substance abuse program, Well Within, said her program would definitely benefit from some extra support.

"It would be really nice if we could have someone to donate to the Well Within program," she said. "It's surviving because the families are paying" -- on a sliding scale, just like at the Assessment Clinic.

Well Within is an outpatient, intensive drug and alcohol counseling program for teens and their families. The program is relatively new; it was founded in October of 2011.

According to Foster, substance abuse counseling has always been a part of CHAC's mission. However, the organization lost its grant for drug and alcohol programming during the recession.

"It wasn't good that they lost the money," Foster said. "But now, with the redevelopment of the new outpatient program, we actually get to work with local families."

Previously, most of the youths sent to the CHAC substance abuse program were directed there by their probation officers. But now, there are local families and teens of all backgrounds in the program.

That's important, Foster said, because kids who have landed in the juvenile corrections system aren't the only ones who may be experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

"Drug and alcohol use by teens is rampant and epidemic in the United States," Foster said, and Mountain View and the surrounding areas are no exception.

In addition to alcohol, Foster said, marijuana, Ecstasy (also called Molly), and prescription drugs taken without a prescription, are among the most common drugs local teens abuse.

The Well Within program aims to get teens talking to their parents openly about drugs and stress -- in an attempt to pinpoint reasons that the kids start taking drugs or drinking in the first place. The program also takes a facts-based approach to drug education, without resorting to "scare tactics."

Foster said she wants to get the teens to understand the consequences of developing a drug and alcohol habit -- especially at a young age. While most of the teens she sees are not yet addicts in the traditional sense of the word, picking up such habits as a teenager greatly increases the risk of becoming reliant on substances later in life -- either as a way to deal with stress, or, with certain drugs, like opiates and amphetamines, because a user becomes physically dependent.

Community support

Carstens said that some might assume that moving into a new, larger building is an indicator that CHAC is flush with cash -- "but that's not the case."

While the building is not costing CHAC any more in rent than they were previously paying, Carstens did say it has increased the organization's operating costs. On top of that, renovating and furnishing the building is costing money. CHAC still needs community support -- perhaps more now than ever before, she said.

Carstens said that her organization could always use more funds -- whether that comes from small individual donations or larger grants. To find out more about CHAC services or to support the organization, go to their website,

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3 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Castro City
on Dec 30, 2013 at 10:30 am

CHAC is one of the finest entities in Mountain View! They are kind, caring and very much in tune with the changing needs of the community. I am also in the Mental Health field and know first-hand how much children and parents grow when in this environment. When a parent is overwhelmed the child is also and the downward spiral can be interrupted at CHAC so that everyone can make intelligent choices. Best wishes for many Happy New Years in their stunning new home!

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