By Carl Blumenthal
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Community Links, a service of Baltic Street AEH (Advocacy, Employment and Housing), with headquarters at 250 Baltic St. in Cobble Hill, is a kind of “outward bound” for urban youth striving for mental health and a life free of substance abuse.
Not that its clients pitch tents in Prospect Park for nature therapy. Rather the program has three reasons why it’s heading in the right direction.
First, Community Links claims to be unique for New York City in meeting the needs of 18-to-25-year-olds coping with mental illness and substance abuse by providing them services in addition to any clinical treatment they receive.
Second, the program’s staff members are peers, both in age and diagnoses, of the clients they serve, enabling them to identify with and guide them.
Finally, although the project, located at 1111 St. Marks Place in Crown Heights, is called a “recovery center” in City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) lingo, it is more appropriately termed a “center without walls.”
The goal, as Yasmine Kamel, program director, describes it, is “for [those with behavioral health difficulties] to spread out and explore” the rich possibilities New York offers them in self-expression, education, vocational training and jobs.
The bulk of Community Links’ funding pays for the peer recovery specialists, who, from navigating the mental health and substance abuse systems to meet their own needs, have learned to assist the program’s clients.
This is a new trend in behavioral health services, which, according to the Sept. 11 Stateline news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts, is yielding equal, and sometimes better, outcomes than traditional mental health services -- at a lower price.
Since opening in March 2013, Community Links has welcomed several hundred guests to free, bi-monthly open houses at various co-sponsoring agencies in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, “showcasing resources in the community and providing clients with an opportunity to utilize them.” This encourages residents, whether struggling or well, to support each other.
Among the participating groups were Art Lab, HAI Art Studio, New York Public Library Youth Program, Black Women’s Blueprints, Everything Goes Book Café, Long Island City Roots Community Garden, Save Our Streets Crown Heights and Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow.
Kamel attributed the success of the events to a mix of substance and style. The topics of “wellness, food and health, fitness, activism and community, visual arts, education and poetry” naturally appeal to this age group. Also, the hands-on approach, including demonstrations and audience participation, made a more effective learning experience.
These events also help market Community Links’ long-term recovery service, which matches individuals who self-report with a diagnosis to peer recovery specialists. The workers help their client-peers identify goals and tools to achieve them. Currently, 30 people receive such assistance; and the program has openings for more.
Education, vocational training, jobs and parenting have been the main concerns of participants thus far. As a result of referrals to Medgar Evers College, Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow and others, several peers have gained retail, food service and administrative positions.
Kamel emphasized that too often, young people become alienated and isolated. What they want is peer support for their creative passions. She added, “Here we don’t emphasize labels. We focus on assets rather than deficits by helping peers reach their goals and dreams.”
Finally, Kamel shared what might be a secret to some people: “My guess is that a little quirkiness is an aspect of creative communities. With the varieties of personalities and thinking you find, there is more understanding of the role emotion plays in our lives.”
For more information about Community Links’ services, call 929-210-9810, or find them on Facebook and Meetup.com @ Community Links NYC.