By Dana Asby, Education Coordinator, New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center
Julia Macek, LCSW, brings 32 years of experience working to improve the mental well-being of families and their young children into her role as a Behavioral Health Specialist at the Aroostook County Action Program (ACAP). For half a decade, ACAP—a non-profit organization that takes a holistic approach to mental health—has been providing support around prevention and wellness, early care and education, energy and housing, and workforce development to their community in rural Maine. Julia brings a wealth of experience to the schools where she works through partnerships with ACAP. This has led her to incorporate compassionate, trauma-skilled school practices in her efforts toward early intervention for the youngest children in Aroostook county and support services for older children and the adults who care for them.
Forming a Vision for a Trauma-Skilled Community
When Julia first started working in mental health, the medical model focused on doctors as the ultimate authority in diagnosing what was wrong with a child and following rigid recommendations for treatment dominated the field. Early in her career, Julia moved to rural Maine where she began working with families with children in the foster care system and received training in theraplay. She realized that many of the issues both the children and families she worked with had stemmed from their trauma histories and the effects trauma had on their attachment styles. Julia began signing up for the trauma-informed care trainings that were offered and integrated this knowledge into her use of theraplay to repair attachment issues.
“I had a realization that there’s so much that we are missing when we think about symptoms of mental health with children. It’s really about their experiences and what’s happened to them,” Julia explained. Working closely with families who experienced trauma helped her realize she needs to see the whole person, rather than just a child that has challenging behaviors. Understanding that parents come in with their own trauma experiences—that require more than just medication and therapy to heal—helped propel Julia into community-based work that addresses all of the needs of families: housing, transportation, jobs, education, physical healthcare, and mental health prevention and intervention services across the lifespan. To increase this understanding in our communities, Julia encourages us to bring others into the conversation. “With COVID, we’ve all been traumatized, so there are ongoing opportunities for education, dialogue, and processing about becoming trauma-informed.”
Bringing Community-Based Mental Health Services into Schools
To realize the vision that Julia and ACAP have to provide effective wraparound services to families, they have a multi-pronged approach that includes reducing the causes of trauma by assisting community members in getting basic needs like housing and physical healthcare met, intervening early to prevent potential mental health challenges later in life, and providing holistic support when mental health challenges do arise. For families, the school building can be a common meeting ground to deliver mental health services.
For the youngest children, Julia goes into Head Start and Early Head Start programs where she uses the Multi-tiered System of Supports pyramid model to think about how to best meet the social-emotional needs of students as young as three. This sometimes involves early intervention at the individual level, but more often requires tweaking the curriculum for all students to better focus on social-emotional learning and training educators on trauma-informed practices. ACAP delivers trainings on poverty, intergenerational trauma, trauma-informed practices, and culturally-responsive care so that the adults are not merely looking at the behavior of children as a challenge, but as an insight into what areas of their lives might need additional support.
In addition to the work she does in Head Start and Early Start, Julia also works in K-12 schools in Aroostook County, training staff in trauma-skilled, compassionate practices, including use of restorative practices. In these schools, she’s worked with groups of children identified for services to grow their social-emotional skill set. She also facilitates prevention programs primarily for youth, but also for adults where they help families work through the various systems they need to find healing and health, including referrals to family counseling.
Providing Schools with the Tools to Teach from the Heart
Julia is encouraged by seeing mental health talked about by students, teachers, and administrators more openly at school. There are more opportunities for people with lived experience of mental health challenges to experience growth because the classrooms she works with all have toolboxes, lesson plans, and activities to support social-emotional well-being integrated into the academic curricula, throughout the school day. To keep this trend going, Julia thinks that we need to focus on convincing administrators that social-emotional learning is just as important as academics. She also believes that providing educators with trainings that don’t infringe on their limited planning time is essential. “Teachers are beginning to recognize the importance of mental health and social-emotional learning. They recognize the emotions of children and connect them to their behavior. But you can’t just tell a teacher what to do, they have to feel it and be connected to their students. It has to come from the heart.”
Julia has shared the excellent work she is doing through ACAP in Aroostook county with her colleagues in the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC). As a C-TLC Fellow, Julia has felt validated that the approach she advocated for that incorporates restorative practices, social-emotional learning, and trauma-informed practices could be effective. She has admired the examples of this approach she has seen working in the schools of other C-TLC Fellows and Ambassadors and appreciates knowing that so many people are doing this work at various stages of development. Julia hopes that ACAP can serve as an example for other communities looking to meet the holistic needs of their neighbors.