Health centers on kids — New program offers play therapy to area youth

Photo courtesy of Peninsula Community Health Services. A play therapy room at Peninsula Community Health Service’s new facility in Kenai.

Photo courtesy of Peninsula Community Health Services. A play therapy room at Peninsula Community Health Service’s new facility in Kenai.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Helping people in need is a hallmark of Peninsula Community Health Services, but sometimes it can be tough to tell when someone young —12 years old or less — is in need of assistance.

“Some may not know, or some — such as children 5 and under — may not be able to say, they may be too young,” said Joe Cannava, director of Behavioral Health at PCHS.

For the past 15 years, Cannava has worked with people of all ages in need of various mental health services, but helping the young is an area that has particularly grown in recent years.

“When I started we only had a handful of clients 5 or younger,” he said. “Now, we’ll see 50 in a year that are under 5.”

Wanting to meet the needs of this demographic, PCHS has recently opened a second facility from its main building on East Marydale Avenue in Soldotna. The new location, at the old Banko Building in Kenai, was purchased, remodeling was completed Sept. 1, and it opened Oct. 15 to better meet the needs of children as well as adults from outside the Soldotna area.

“Our research captured that most of the clients who were coming to us were coming from within a 10-mile radius,” Cannava said. “This made us worried for people in Kenai and Nikiski who want and need services, so this will allow us to work with those clients.”

Rather than relying on the traditional mental health model in place at the Soldotna site, where clients meet with a single counselor in a 50-minute session, during typical business hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Kenai site will take on a more dynamic approach, particularly with the work around children.

“We want to offer services outside of the box, and the two official play-therapy rooms will allow us to do that with kids 12 and under,” he said.

The rooms are set up with one-way mirrors, where counselors — trained and certified play therapists — and parents can observe a child or children in the play-therapy rooms, so they can observe activity in a discreet and unobtrusive way.

“They monitor, more than intervene. Nothing is directed. It’s up to the child what they do,” Cannava said.

Inside the room, there’s a lot to do. Everything is built to a child’s height and there are no desks or chairs. There are numerous toys, stuffed animals and other items, and all have been placed with purpose.

“There’s no Nintendo or anything like that,” Cannava said. “There are things like a dollhouse, so we can see — through the child’s play — what is going on at home. There is also a dress-up station where they can pretend to be a doctor or police officer, so we can see how they interpret the role of these people, and what their experiences are with them. There are also things like foam swords, which, depending on how they’re used, can reveal anger or emotional problems.”

There are also multitudes of art-related items in the rooms, for kids who might not be able to articulate the problems they’re having or what they’ve experienced to show it through art in a sand tray or through a painting.

“They may not be able to tell you what’s wrong, but through their play — observed by a trained and certified play therapist who can interpret what they’re watching — they may be able to show you,” Cannava said.

He added that being able to identify and diagnose a problem early is a critical component to helping young people, in particular.

“If you get to it at an early stage you can intervene at an early stage and prevent problems for them and others down the road,” he said.

In addition to the play-therapy room, Cannava said that the Kenai site will also provide clients with more after-school opportunities.

“It will be in more of a group, or clubhouse model, but will allow us to provide behavioral health help for kids between when they get out of school but before their parents are home from work,” he said.

For parents and other adults in need, the Kenai site will offer co-occurring substance abuse treatment, to aid people dealing with mental health and drug or alcohol addictions or problems.

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