Not home for the holidays: Facilities present Christmas to inpatient teens

At Stevenson House Detention Center in Milford, some teens designed a holiday-themed bulletin board. Employees of inpatient facilities for kids use decorations, gifts and contact with family to help brighten the season for their patients. (Submitted photo)

There are still decorations, presents, holiday movies.

There are cookies, holiday meals, crafts.

For some families who sit down together for the holidays, however, there will be teenagers who aren’t home.

But staff members at places like Dover Behavioral Health System and the Stevenson House Detention Center are trying to keep the season festive for them.

“As you walk in the unit, it’s pretty festive, just to get them in the spirits because a lot of them are here for more than that five-, 10-, 15-day frame,” said Destinee Johnson, mental health technician for Dover Behavioral Health. “We have them here for a couple of months.”

She noted that while they try to get them “discharged as soon as possible” around the holidays, sometimes that’s not plausible.

As of last week, the facility had 16 patients — ranging from 12 to 17 years old — receiving inpatient care. And there’s usually a spike around the holidays; Thanksgiving saw 35 teenagers receiving care.

“When they come in, typically, it’s because they’ve lost a loved one around this holiday season or they don’t have a family to celebrate with around the holiday season, so that brings on their depression or makes them angry, so they’ll come here for aggression,” she said.

Because of that, she added, it’s important to make the holiday season enjoyable. Staff bring in cookies, give gift bags with items the teens can use for coping skills, distribute hygiene products and more.

“It’s important to keep them just in good spirits, to keep them up, because they already are struggling with something else that’s bigger than the holiday,” she said. “So if you just do little things such as a goody bag or watching Christmas movies and having popcorn and pizza for them, it lifts up their spirits. They get the social (element) with their peers and just feel the energy that, ‘OK, maybe times aren’t that bad.’”

At Stevenson House, a detention center in Milford for those under 18, employees try to do things for kids “as normal as possible as if they weren’t” there over the holidays, Superintendent Katie Kenney said.

Kids decorate cookies (this year, sugar cookies won out over gingerbread) and send Christmas cards. There’s a Christmas tree in the lobby. The units are decorated, and the staff votes on the decor.

“Obviously, we recognize this is a very difficult time for the kids being away for the holidays, so we have a few things we try to put in place to kind of make it seem as family-oriented and as homelike as possible,” she said.

Typically, on Christmas morning, the kids wake up to gift bags outside their doors with items like fuzzy socks, journals or hygiene products. Bigger, building-wide items — like gaming systems, pingpong tables, etc. — are also unveiled around this time. This year, the list includes new basketballs, a croquet set and new volleyball nets.

But, like it affects everything, COVID-19 is having its impact. Both Dover Behavioral Health and Stevenson House usually have visitation with families over the holiday season. That is suspended this year.

At Stevenson House, the teens usually give gifts to their families, like ornaments or bowls decorated with paint or markers.

In lieu of that, FaceTime calls have increased. Since COVID-19 precautions first began, Stevenson House has implemented FaceTime calls on iPhones.

“It gives them an opportunity to actually physically see their family members, so they certainly appreciate that,” Ms. Kenney said.

On Christmas, patients will get increased phone calls at Dover Behavioral Health, Ms. Johnson said. There’s the hope the facility will have Zoom set up, too, so the teens can see their families virtually.

“Personally, I think that it’s important because not all kids are fortunate — even if they were or weren’t here,” Ms. Johnson said. “Some of them, they might believe in Christmas and celebrate it, but they might not even be fortunate enough to wake up to something in the morning with a hot meal, have a hot meal that night or even just open up something, whether it’s big or small. And I think it’s important for them just to experience that.”