Philippe Rey, executive director of nonprofit Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS), has won the ninth annual Kiwanis Angel Award for his decades of work supporting youth mental health in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
The Kiwanis Angel Award, sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto, honors an individual who has had a significant, positive impact on children and youth and provides a $2,500 contribution to the recipient's organization. It will bestow the award on Rey in a virtual award reception on Nov. 12.
Rey, a native of Switzerland with a doctorate in clinical psychology with a concentration in child and family therapy, first joined Adolescent Counseling Services in 1998 as director of the Caravan House, a now-closed group home for teen girls. He went on to become associate director and has been the agency's executive director since 2004.
Adolescent Counseling Services, located in Redwood City, provides therapy, specialized support groups and other mental health resources to local youth, parents and schools. (Previously headquartered in Palo Alto, the nonprofit worked with Palo Alto Unified for years but now serves districts in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park and in other area schools. All teens regardless of school can access the nonprofits' services.) The nonprofit also runs an adolescent substance abuse treatment program and Outlet, a longtime LGBTQ+ support program.
The critical mental health needs among youth was already pronounced before the pandemic: One out of five individuals ages 10-25 are struggling with a major mental illness, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These numbers have increased during the pandemic, Rey said in an interview, with schools closed and teenagers grappling with isolation and other challenges. ACS has seen an increase in substance use among teenagers and a spike in demand for Outlet's services.
"Since March we've actually seen a deterioration of mental health and an increase in the struggles, especially with that age group," he said.
At the start of shelter-at-home order, Adolescent Counseling Services immediately switched to a teletherapy model to serve teens remotely, which has brought both challenges and unexpected benefits. Some teenagers, without the prompting of someone at school or a watchful parent, wouldn't show up to virtual appointments or group sessions — particularly in the substance abuse program, where virtual therapy proved less effective. The nonprofit has since brought those youth and families back for in-person treatment. ACS also started a support group for parents of teenagers who are attending out-of-state substance abuse programs.
But telehealth also enabled Adolescent Counseling Services to vastly expand its reach and to reach teens in areas without strong mental health services, Rey said. The nonprofit has seen teenagers from the Central Valley or as far away as Alabama and Georgia participating in Outlet's LGBTQ+ support services — some from literally inside their closets, he said.
The nonprofit saw "huge demand" at the start of the pandemic, particularly because ACS doesn't turn away anyone who can't pay for services. (The $2,500 Kiwanis award money will fund services for low-income families who can't afford them.)
"There were a lot of families whose parents had lost their jobs, therefore losing their insurance. Their kids still needed to be seen and supported in therapy," he said. He still hears from many parents that private therapists have long waitlists.
On the other end of the spectrum, some teens who were bullied or who struggled at school for some reason have found respite at home and have seen their mental health improve, Rey said.
Adolescent Counseling Services has set a goal to double the number of clients it serves annually, from 5,000 youth to 10,000 by 2021.
Internally, Rey said, he's focused on supporting staff members, who are working long, hard days to meet this unprecedented need. He holds socially distanced meetings with staff outside in parks to maintain some in-person connection (and combat Zoom fatigue) and sends gift cards and flowers to employees on their birthdays. He talks often about work-life balance and even warns staff whom he "catches" sending emails on the weekends that he'll change their passwords if they don't take a break. He asks his team to schedule lunch breaks on their calendars and actually take them.
"If we put all of our energy and resources in our work it's not going to be good in the end," he said. "We're all going to burn out and crash. Take time for yourself."
Rey "has a true gift for leadership, compassion, innovation and collaboration," Emily O'Connell, a former Mountain View-Los Altos High School district teacher and community volunteer, said in the Kiwanis award announcement. "He has chosen to focus his commitment on a disturbingly underserved population, a largely voiceless and vulnerable demographic: adolescents (teens, tweens, and young adults) in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties."
The virtual award reception will be held on Nov. 12 from 5-6:30 p.m. via Zoom. Attendance is free, although a donation to support the work of the Kiwanis is requested. Register for the event at kiwanisangelaward.org/registration.