It looks like a typical classroom art project: In the center of the wall is a 10-foot paper tree with brightly-colored leaves. Each leaf features an inspirational saying, made by a student or quoted from someone famous.

“Fall in love with yourself before you fall in love with others.”

“Good people have bad days.”

“Nothing is impossible. The word itself says, ‘I’m possible.’”

The artwork combines the two purposes of Reflections, a day treatment program for youth in Scott County. For adolescents here, the main purpose is to make progress with mental health issues through intensive group, individual and family therapy. Another goal is to keep up with academic work, so when students are ready to go back to school, they won’t be behind.

This is the first year of Reflections, the only day treatment program for youth in the county. The program is a partnership between Scott County Mental Health Center and the South West Metro Educational Cooperative, a collaborative with 10 member school districts that offers educational options for students with different needs.

“There’s a critical mass of students with pretty significant mental health needs,” said Darren Kermes, executive director of the cooperative, which includes Shakopee, New Prague, Prior Lake-Savage, Belle Plaine, Watertown-Mayer, Jordan, Tri-City United, Eastern Carver County, Waconia and Norwood Young America.

Those students, ages 13 to 18, need more than a therapy session once a week. Many are dealing with serious depression, anxiety, trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder, and were being treated in partial hospitalization programs in other counties, Kermes said.

But other students weren’t going anywhere to get help, Kermes said. The need was noticed by superintendents of the member districts, who quickly said they supported the Reflections concept.

“The program garnered my support for several reasons,” said Sue Ann Gruver, superintendent in the Prior Lake-Savage district. “We were in need of a high-quality program for teens in our local area that provides true day treatment to meet the unique needs of students.”

Students stay in the program for as long as they need, from four weeks to a year. During that time, Reflections teachers communicate regularly with their home school teachers.

School issues and mental health concerns can build on each other, each making the other seem worse, said Kermes.

“We have to have the basic mental health needs met so kids are in a position so they can learn,” he said. “Sometimes, they will never catch back up again” if school issues aren’t addressed early.

An average day

In an average day at Reflections, housed in an old elementary school in Spring Lake Township, the students participate in two group and two individual therapy sessions with the psychologist and therapist. In the evenings, family therapy sessions are scheduled.

Involving families is important because “that’s what they go home to, that’s where they live,” said Steven Cambrice, a therapist.

Students have regular classes, like English and math, sometimes taught in a large group and other times split up by age, said Terry Raddatz, clinical director for Scott County Mental Health Center.

Students help set the group expectations, boundaries and rules together, Cambrice said.

“Even with somewhat of an age gap, they feel a sense of connection [to each other],” he said.

Students don’t feel they are being told what to do this way, he added, and those who have been there the longest become leaders, holding their peers accountable.

More need than before?

Though it may seem there’s an explosion of students with mental health needs among youth, it’s more likely that parents are identifying problems earlier and getting treatment sooner, Kermes said.

Reflections currently enrolls 12 to 18 students, but the program has the capacity to serve more students than that, he said.

Families are billed for the mental health services through their insurance or Medicaid, while teachers are provided through the cooperative, which students’ districts belong to.

Members of Reflections staff say they have seen dramatic turnarounds by students who were previously too nervous to communicate, hurting themselves or thinking about suicide. School attendance also improves.

“Maybe at their home school, they were so anxious that they weren’t really succeeding,” said Tawnya Ward, a clinical psychologist. “It’s almost a relief for kids to come here so they can work on their stuff.”