Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques Reducing Anxiety and Trauma in Youth

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Can persistence and science change the life of a traumatized youth? Kurt Palermo from Roca believes he can. Roca is an organization dedicated to disrupting incarceration, poverty and racism by engaging young adults, police and systems at the center of urban violence in relationships to cope with trauma, find hope and lead the change.

Kurt works at Roca in downtown Baltimore, where many young men and women are incarcerated for crimes every day. On closer inspection, these young people have been caught in a punitive cycle of violence and often come from impoverished families who live in low-income areas, sub-optimal schools with chaos as a daily occurrence. Kurt, alongside Roca, believes the cycle can be broken, and that has proven to be true with 25 years of data. He saw many of these pessimistic and hardened young men and women not only get their lives back on track, but grow into happy and successful members of society. Roca, which means Rock in Spanish, has helped thousands of young men and women. It first started in Massachusetts and has spread to several cities there, and has now spread to Maryland.

Kurt talks about three ingredients that have impacted this program where other programs have failed: persistence, meeting people where they are, and cognitive theory (CBT), a scientific method used to modify. The behaviour. He believes that the real impact comes from “relentless awareness” and is training his staff to take this key action. The average youngster, who has a history of incarceration, violence or trauma, will open the door for Roca staff an average of 12 to 14 times after the first attempt.

“It’s something we do that’s different from other programs…. meet a person where they are. You have to go where the kids are, ”Kurt said. Human connection is essential, as is the introduction to CBT. Based on brain science, the brain’s ability of neuroplasticity to change is important, especially in young adults. CBT training for young people is ‘laser centric on what works’ and is based on research into the cognitive stages of change. Although it takes time for the behavior change to occur, around 2 years, he works with the program to “graduate” over 220 people every 4 years. Since its inception, several centers have seen and helped hundreds of young men – in 2021, 745 men signed up and over 82% stayed and practiced CBT techniques, which had an impact on their lives.

One example Kurt cites is a previously traumatized young man who came in for his 8:00 am work day at the organization. He felt sick that day and told his supervisor. When the supervisor said he had to go home and rest, the man took it for rejection and went off and started yelling that he wasn’t going to go home and no one could. force it. Staff quickly realized that this had put her back into a “fight or flight” response and that she had invoked what Kurt calls the “lower brain survival” part of her brain. The Harm Reduction and CBT model targets this behavior allowing, over time, people to build up with an 8-10 second break before entering an automatic stress response. By talking and using CBT methods, the staff were able to calm the youth down and get him back on track. With continued practice, he was able to master this change in behavior over time, an important mental and emotional tool, which can impact his entire life.

Molly Baldwin, founder, CEO and relentless leader of this organization is based in Massachusetts where 5 centers serve young men. They have opened additional arms in two of these centers to serve young mothers as well. The goal is to teach behavioral learning and bring it back to a productive life. With over 254 new mothers in the program, the hope is that stabilizing the mother will lead to better outcomes for the children. And that’s the case. 52% of child protection cases were closed and over 88% of children improved their development. After 2 years in the program, ¾ of the young mothers have been successfully placed in employment. Many young mothers have been helped and are now working while raising young children, breaking the cycle of incarceration.

“People can change, ”Kurt says passionately. “It’s not magic and can be painful and scary, but it’s essential.”


The “Hiding in plain sight” Blog is a series leading up to the upcoming 2022 documentary Hiding in plain sight: youth mental illness (weight), produced and directed by Ewers Brothers Productions, produced by Ken Burns and presented by WETA, PBS’s flagship station in our nation’s capital.

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You’re not alone. If you or someone you know is in a crisis, whether or not considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Lifeline toll-free number at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor. If you don’t want to talk on the phone, you can also send an SMS. Crisis Text Line offers free mental health support. Text “10-18” or “SCRUBS” to 741741 for assistance. The call and SMS lines are open 24 hours a day.


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