May 20, 2022

Mental Health Care for Our Youth is Essential

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and homelessness is a traumatic experience that can significantly impact the mental health of our youth at Covenant House New Jersey (CHNJ). But oftentimes, these youth have lived with significant trauma throughout their young lives even prior to being homeless. In fact, FY21 data on our youth shows that:

  • 32% have been victims of domestic violence
  • 36% have been in the foster care system
  • 7% have been victims of trafficking
  • 32% have self-reported that they are dealing with mental health issues.

Addressing their trauma and their mental health is often the first step in stabilizing them. From there, we provide resilience skills needed to help them transition to successful independent living. Providing these skills and resilience are a key part of our services and what distinguishes CHNJ from many other shelters.

Accordingly, the CHNJ Behavioral Health Department (BHD), was established in 2007 in our Newark Crisis/Community Center to provide essential behavioral health services for youth ages 18-24 experiencing homelessness and human trafficking victims. The BHD was founded to reduce barriers to mental health care and bolster mental health resiliency of our youth. In 2021, 155 youth completed behavioral health assessments. 57% of those youth engaged in therapy services and 20% utilizing our Psychiatric Advanced Practice Nurse (APN).

Our Mental Health Programs

Additionally, in 2009, CHNJ opened up Nancy’s Place in Montclair, NJ. Nancy’s Place is a safe and supportive residence where young people who have determined that their mental health poses an obstacle for independence, can get the individualized mental health support and services they need.

The youth who live at Nancy’s Place create a plan addressing their physical, emotional, and spiritual health. According to Aquiyla Johnson, Coordinator of Transitional Living Programs, “Nancy’s Place allows our young people the opportunity to address their trauma in a safe place without immediately having to worry about finding and maintaining employment in order to move out of homelessness. We know maintaining employment is a challenge for those who do not have a chance to address their trauma and mental health.”

Because youth experiencing homelessness exhibit much higher rates of mental health conditions as compared to their housed peers (1), the BHD is an essential program in the process of helping youth achieve stable housing and is constantly looking for ways to expand services and improve methods. Youth experiencing homelessness often face a series of barriers to mental health treatment. Barriers such as cost, lack of transportation, shame around treatment, and an unawareness of options are all addressed in BHD. Early intervention, assessments, personalized care, individual and group therapies, and psychiatric care to manage medications and symptoms are key elements of the BHD program.

Our Process

Upon entry into our programs, each youth meets with our social worker for an assessment to identify their unique needs. Indicators identified include Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE scores), potential experience of trafficking, and the need for mental health services. This is also a vital time for staff to begin developing trusting relationships with youth. In FY21 76% of youth in our Newark Crisis Center were screened as part of the intake process.

By providing on-site care, our staff are able to provide youth with consistency. Consistency in who is treating them prevents the retraumatization that comes with seeing multiple providers. Having on-site staff also increases youth engagement and mental health resilience while reducing waiting times and some the barriers of mental health care. Staff treat youth with absolute respect and unconditional love to build trusting relationships and combat any past negative treatment experiences. Staff use the evidenced based curriculum, Mind Matters, alongside differentiated therapy practices. Youth are provided with rotating opportunities to address a variety of issues from resiliency and adaptation to mindfulness and delayed gratification. By giving youth a range of options and methods, we enable them to approach their mental health treatment feeling empowered.

Mental Health Care Through Medication

For those youth who need help with medication, our psychiatric APN eliminates wait times that could pose a barrier to a young person’s willingness to try medication. The present wait time between referrals and individual psychiatric care appointments outside of programming is six weeks to three months. Our APN also provides youth with medication monitoring to ensure they are able to control symptoms and adapt their medication.

The young people we serve are our priority and their insight into programs and services is essential. Youth are encouraged to provide both positive and negative feedback through in-person and anonymous processes. Additionally, when youth show an interest in something, such as music, staff respond by providing relevant opportunities such as music therapy or hip-hop empowerment groups.

Our Partners

Youth can also receive referrals as needed to one of our community partner organizations. Two of our partners include the Sanar Institute and University Behavioral Health Care (UBHC). Sanar Institute provides individual therapy for our human trafficking victims. They address the impact of trauma caused by human trafficking and the exploitation of vulnerable communities through cutting-edge trauma-specific services. UBHC provides care for youth who have recently been hospitalized and need higher levels of care for their mental health. UBHC provides group therapy daily and individual therapy weekly for youth who need some additional support for their specific needs.

To track outcomes and measure success CHNJ staff utilize Social Solutions’ Efforts to Outcomes database. This system tracks demographics, intake assessments, therapy sessions, referrals, and medication monitoring sessions. Additionally, staff will utilize one-on-one observational data and questionnaires to gather qualitative data. Staff use data to guide the work with youth and modify case plans and improve programming as needed.

Healthy minds are essential for the long term success of our young people. Thanks to the support of our Behavioral Health Department and Nancy’s Place, we are able to meet that need.

Learn More

To learn more about CHNJ’s BHD and Nancy’s Place, contact Alison Iannarone

Alison Iannarone: Associate Director of the Dove Learning Center at