By Mark Nicklawske

Denfeld High School always creates a commotion with its daily dismissal: People race out the front doors, busses roar onto Grand Avenue and cars stream across the parking lot headed for home.

But some students just walk across the street for an afternoon therapy session.

Cambia Hills recently opened a day treatment program in a cozy apartment space above a small paint store. The two-story, classic brick building makes for a convenient, relaxing and homey place for a group of young people to discuss issues with adult experts.

On a recent sunny Friday, two Denfeld students bounded up the stairs, tossed off their coats and went to the kitchen refrigerator where they helped themselves to a cold drink and a snack. The place felt like an after school club house.

One student laughed. “Yeah, this is where it all happens,” she said. “This is where we laugh and cry and try to work everything out.”

Cambia Hills Denfeld opened last November for west side students age 12-17 who are struggling with school, friends, home life or any other teenage mental health issue. The  program, which has its capacity capped at eight, has drawn a unique group of young people.

“We’re getting more of the internalizers. The ones who make one mistake and they’re thinking about it for the next week or two. They put themselves down a lot. They get anxious a lot,” said Cambia Hills Outpatient Clinical Supervisor Christine Squier. “The upside to the group we’re getting is that they are willing to explore that stuff. They’re not as defensive.”

Squier said the students listen to therapists, reflect on advice and make changes.

“It’s been a great experience,” she said.

Therapist Thomas Udenberg and Mental Health Practitioner Emily Stirling discuss daily activities and recent challenges with the group five days a week. One hour is dedicated to living skills, a second hour delves into therapy.

Udenberg said the living room creates a more relaxed setting than a clinical office or sterile classroom. He said the setting helps young people open up and leads to good interaction.

“They’re open with each other, and being able to not really hold anything back and just accept one another and the challenges that they’re given, they’re using it almost instantly,” he said. “We’re getting some great feedback from parents.”

Squier said the small apartment setting also gives older students a look at what may lie ahead after graduation when many move away from home.

“The hope was that the high schoolers could see their next step in life,” she said. “Maybe they would be able to rent out a place like this. So they come home, after work or being in school, they grab something to eat, we relax in the chairs and just talk about their day – the goods and the bads, the things they tried, where they could make changes – and just see where the conversation goes from there.”

Young people can be referred to the program through parents or school and must be diagnosed with a mental health issue. Sessions are paid for through typical family insurance coverage.

Cambia Hills Denfeld is not part of the Duluth School District but its location allows students easy access to both classroom work and therapy. Students can stay in school, work with familiar teachers, see their friends and then attend therapy just across the street.

“Even though we’re not part of the school, we’re obviously hoping that grades improve, attendance improves, because that’s the main part of most kid’s lives is that school piece,” said Squier. “Family relationships improving, healthy friendships, all of that.”

Udenberg said the program is built for young people who are capable students but have issues with personal skills or self esteem, the kind of students who usually fly under the radar of school counselors.

“A lot of the work that we’re doing is just helping them build that self-confidence, that self-discovery,” he said. “You know, questions like: ‘Who am I? What kind of student am I? And as I age and rely less and less on my parents, who am I going to be?’”

Udenberg and Squier said they try to create an environment where kids can be kids and they can work out their problems with each other in a fun and meaningful way.

“They talk about how they have never had a space where they can just be themselves,” said Squier. “Every single place they go they feel like they need to put on a mask…They can come here and just practice being themselves.”

And they don’t have far to go.

As one student said, the biggest barrier between Denfeld High School and her therapy session is a giant parking lot snow bank.

“Somebody needs to haul that away,” she said. “It’s not good.”