Misc 28/06/2021

Summer camps to overcome addictions and make peace with the family

Some 90 teenagers live together in a therapeutic school, where they receive psycho-educational care

4 min
Ella and Javier (fictitious names) at the therapeutic school Can Ros, in Aiguamúrcia (Alt Camp)

Aiguamúrcia (Alt Camp)Suddenly, their parents were gone. On Friday 13th March 2020, while we were all locked up at home because of the pandemic, Javier - fictitious name - began his particular closure in Can Ros. His parents had brought him from Madrid deceived, and left him in this therapeutic school so that he could recover from his addictions. He is 17 years old and has been "hooked" on drugs since he was 12, a descent into hell that had dynamited the family relationship. "They gave me letters explaining why my parents had brought me here. At first I didn't accept their motives. Over time, I understood my mistakes and that I had to make amends", he explains.

Frankly, he admits that, not knowing how to ask for help, he had even taken drugs at home to "get caught". "It was a hint, because I knew it wasn't helping me but I didn't know how to stop it", he recalls. But even when they helped him by taking him to Can Ros Javier admits that the rage he felt (against his parents and himself) pushed him to make mistakes, like stealing money and running away at night.

He has turned his emotions into a kind of gratitude and some shame. "If it were up to me, I never would have come. My parents made the right decision". He says that over the months he has taken "stones out of his backpack" thanks to therapy and sport, and that he has learned to communicate better, even with his parents. "Before, the only thing that made me feel good was getting high, but it was a momentary comfort. Here I have learned to ask for help before I explode and to keep my head in order to have an orderly life".

Javier, who is already counting the days to be discharged, has recovered in the therapeutic school that the organisation Amalgama 7 has in Alt Camp. It is a stone house in the middle of the countryside where 90 adolescent boys and girls live who need assistance and educational support for problems such as drug and alcohol addictions, mobile phone or video game abuse, violence against parents, lack of motivation at school or eating disorders, among others. Some are almost grown up, others look like children. They are all dressed alike - tracksuits and flip-flops or trainers - and many walk with their heads down.

During the school year they can continue their formal studies (they teach ESO, baccalaureate and training courses) and this summer, for the second year, they are organising a kind of summer camp that combines traditional summer camp with therapeutic and psycho-educational services. It is a gateway for families who are looking for help for their children but are afraid to admit them for a long time. Still, 60% of last year's attendees ended up extending their stay.

"I need to be OK with myself"

Ella - not her real name - entered Can Ros three weeks ago. "I need to leave behind my problems, self-harm, have a clearer head and be okay with myself", she says. She is 15 years old and only seven months ago lost her mother to cancer. "She had adopted me and felt guilty about leaving. My head rejects my aunt and uncle, because living with them now means accepting that my mother is no longer there and I feel very angry", she explains. She wants to recover to reconcile with some friends, whom she admits she has not treated well in recent months, and with her new family, whom she misses. "I have seen that they have done everything for me, that they love me and that I also need a family to support me and take care of me", she says, aware that she will be in Can Ros for "as long as it takes" to recover. "I want to be well, to get away from people who don't give me anything and fill my life with positive things," she says.

She and Javier come in for a fishbowl, a group session in which "we talk about whatever". They start by reviewing the weekend. Many have gone out to visit their families, which upsets them a little. There is a bit of everything: those who are happy because they have experienced "the best days in months", those who have been reunited with their mother and "are beginning to assume" that the recovery is going to take a long time, those who had an argument with their parents "over issues from the past". They also discuss the use they made of their mobile phones -because inside Can Ros they can't use it-. Amalgama 7 has detected that the pandemic has triggered the abuse of screens, although it is difficult to detect cases, because among young people spending hours on mobile phones is very normalised. "I chatted until 3 in the morning with friends", says one girl. Another says she could spend "five hours a day on Instagram". And a teenager admits her problem: "I've shared risky behaviour on WhatsApp, because being listened to makes your self-esteem rise. I have to work on this". The most extreme cases, however, are the six young people they have seen with Hikikomori syndrome, a type of self-confinement in their room.

Breaking prejudices and clichés

In Can Ros many of the prejudices about mental health are dismantled. Despite the fact that putting adolescents with behavioural problems and addictions under the same roof can turn them into a ticking time bomb, they assure that the experience works. "It's a rehearsal for what they encounter in life, because living in a community is about accepting who you have next to you", argues Jonny, the socio-educational Director. The boys and girls agree: "Sometimes we help each other and sometimes we give each other feedback, but this also happens outside. Here at least they help us to see who isn't helping us and to stop it. And although you might think that this happens in marginalised or dysfunctional families, the young people warn that "it can happen to everyone": "We are the children of university professors, civil servants, people who work in hospitals".

Javier also asks to break the clichés when it comes to giving advice. "I don't know what I would say to young people who are going through what I am going through. I would tell the parents of these kids to give a lot of love to their children, but not physical love, but to set limits for them, even if it's hard, so that they don't stray". A few days away from returning home, he feels dizzy because he doesn't want to "fall back into the foolishness" that he dragged along for so many years. "I can't imagine what my life will be like. I have to create it myself, from scratch".

Jordi Royo: "The problems existed before covid, but now they are more accentuated"

Four questions for Jordi Royo, clinical psychologist at Amalgama 7

Shouldn't the Amalgama 7 service be public?

We are a therapeutic school, but we are approved as a residential centre, just like a geriatric home. We are at the same time a hospital, a school and a holiday camp and, therefore, there are doctors and psychologists, teachers, educators and monitors. We have 45 places arranged by the DGAIA and families can ask for the state school insurance benefit, but we would like to arrange more places with Salut.

Have young people suffered more from the pandemic?

We have to put young people on the same level as other groups. There are two tendencies towards teenagers: punitive and compassionate. But teenagers don't want persecution or overprotection. The young people we see had problems before covid, but now they have them more accentuated. For example, 35% of the children treated their parents badly, during the confinement it was 70% and afterwards it was 60%. This means that there are still after-effects of the pandemic.

Can these behaviours be avoided?

When a child talks back badly, has disruptive behaviour and does not collaborate at home at the age of 12, to think that it will be solved is an illusion. We must act as soon as possible, stopping and redirecting. 

What can the family do?

Families have lost their verticality and have settled in a fictitious horizontality. It is not the family structure that is important, but the educational style. There are four: the overprotective, the delegating (when we ask others for responsibilities), the permissive (being a friend of your child) and the co-responsible. Although it is the minority, being a moral reference for your child increases their chances of recovery. It is also necessary for the couple to be in sync, because there are many cases of parents with different styles. More than ever, at-risk adolescents need to talk to adults.