Hope. Second Chances. New Beginnings.

Focusing on adolescent mental health and well-being.

Is it Emotional Growing Pains or Something More? Recognizing Signs of Concern in Children’s Mental Health

pexels-photo-1051318.jpegFrequently, parents may find it hard to know if a child is having mental health issues or if they are experiencing typical physical or emotional growing pains. With the incidence of mental illness in children at such an alarming rate, being aware of signs and symptoms is important. May 7-13 is Children’s Mental Health Awareness week, and Red River Youth Academy wants to help parents, caregivers, and families know how to recognize the signs that a child or teenager needs help.

One in seven children in the United States between the ages of two and eight have a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder (MBDD), according to a 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health.  In a 2001-2004 study of adolescents age 13 to 18, approximately 49 percent had a mental disorder, with females at a slightly higher percentage.

“Parents want to believe that their children are healthy in all aspects, but if behaviors change it is important be aware of the symptoms of mental health problems,” said Amy Steely, LPC, CEO of Red River Youth Academy, a child and adolescent residential behavioral health treatment center in Norman, Okla.

Steely recommends consulting with a licensed medical or mental health professional if your child exhibits two or more of the following symptoms:

  • Increasing difficulty at school, including concentrating, paying attention, or getting along with others
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Increasing aggression towards others, including hitting and verbal attacks
  • Bullying other children or family members
  • Self-harm, including cutting or unexplained bruising
  • Angry outbursts that include throwing things, punching/kicking walls, destroying property
  • Intense emotions such as extreme fear, worry, sadness, or anger
  • Decreased energy or motivation
  • Avoiding friends and family
  • Withdrawing from favorite activities
  • Difficulty sleeping or having frequent nightmares
  • Neglecting routine hygiene and grooming
  • Change in eating habits
  • Becoming obsessed with body weight, shape, facial features, or other aspects of one’s appearance
  • Physical complaints such as headaches and other bodily pain

Children and adolescents go through many changes as their bodies grow and mature.  Some of that growth may cause emotional changes or outbursts. “During adolescence, a child’s brain goes through a lot of change, and it is at this stage in life that symptoms of many mental health disorders start appearing,” Steely said.

Knowing what is normal maturing and what are more concerning issues is sometimes hard to determine.  Contacting a licensed mental health professional for an assessment is helpful. Treatment is very effective and may include therapy and/or medication to manage the illness.

Parents and guardians play an important role in the treatment process.  Being a good role model and being patient and understanding are important in supporting a child’s treatment and growth.  Family therapy may also be warranted, as family issues and situations impact a child’s development and behavioral health, and like any illness, mental health issues affect the whole family.

Red River Youth Academy is located in Norman and serves children and adolescents experiencing serious emotional/behavioral disorders, including those with severe anger, aggression, and defiance.  The facility’s therapeutic program is designed to target specific behavioral health problems faced by youth and to teach them new life skills to enable them to succeed in society. Services include individual, group, and family therapy, medication management, and on-site school. SoonerCare and most private insurance are accepted. For more information or a free phone screening, call (405) 701-8530 or visit


Childhood Trauma: Addressing adverse experiences fosters brighter futures

Many people think of childhood as a time of carefree summer days and the love and support of family.  In reality, that is not always the case.  Every day, countless children experience traumatic events that not only affect their well-being in childhood, but, if unaddressed, will have a profound impact on their adult life as well.

Childhood trauma is defined by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) as “negative events that are emotionally painful and that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope.”  Another way these events are referenced is Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE).  ACEs may include natural disasters, death of a loved one, dysfunctional family situations, or accidents, but the ones that tend to cause the most psychological damage are abuse and neglect.  In Oklahoma, one in three children have experienced two or more ACEs before age 17 – the highest rate in the nation – and one in 12 children have a serious emotional disturbance.

Every day more than 16,000 children are abused, molested, belittled, or neglected and five of them will die. Children who are four and under are at the greatest risk for severe injury or death.  Substance use and misuse and domestic violence are the most common causes of abuse, but mental illness and anger are also major factors.

When left untreated, the trauma from childhood abuse and neglect can lead to problems in adulthood such as anxiety and depression, relationship and trust issues, substance abuse and addiction, eating disorders, hypervigilance, and sleep problems, which are classic symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), those who had one or more ACEs are at a higher risk for many health issues including mental and substance use disorders as an older adult, which is considered 50 and older.

That is why treatment is so important. At Red River Youth Academy, children and adolescents are given a safe, secure place to talk about their trauma and know they will be listened to and taken seriously. Identifying and understanding anger and anxiety triggers and helping children develop and practice healthy coping skills and prosocial behaviors are an important part of the treatment process.  Each child is unique, and so is their plan for treatment.

An individual’s level of resilience is a key factor in overcoming the negative impacts of trauma/adverse childhood experiences and to heal and grow in a healthy way. Resilience is how one adapts to stressful circumstances or how they “bounce back” to deal with the situation.  It is not something people are born with, but a learned behavior.  According to authors Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Forrest Hanson in their How to Hardwire Resilience into Your Brain article, every person has the basic need for safety, satisfaction, and connection, and each need is met by an internal strength.  Children who have experienced abuse and neglect live in a world where their basic needs are not met, and often do not possess the skills needed to process their emotional pain and ask for what they need in order to “bounce back.”. The American Psychological Association states that a person’s level of resilience is increased when a caring support system is in place.  Unfortunately, most children and adolescents who experience a trauma do not have that assistance.

Children who have experienced trauma may exhibit outward signs of distress including irritability, defiance, an unusually high level of anger or rage, aggression toward family members or others, acting out in social situations, mistrust, unreasonable fear, an inability to make friends, withdrawal from family and friends, school problems, unusually strong startle reactions, major changes in eating or sleeping, stomachaches or headaches, difficulty concentrating, suicidal thoughts or actions, and drug or alcohol use.

Children ages 6-12 may be developmentally behind their same-age peers, exhibit fear from being separated from a caregiver, or be afraid of an adult who reminds them of a traumatic incident. They may also show sexual knowledge beyond their age and imitate or recreate a traumatic event during play.  Adolescents (ages 13-18) may avoid situations that remind them of a traumatic experience, engage in risky behaviors, develop unhealthy romantic relationships, have panic attacks, or run away.

Being aware of these warning signs is important to identifying and reporting abuse.  Reporting a suspicious behavior might be uncomfortable, but most children are unable or too afraid to report the issue on their own.  Reporting in many states may be done anonymously.  Contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4 A Child (422-4453) or the National Hotline for Missing or Exploited Children is 800-843-5678 for more information or to report a case of abuse. In Oklahoma, call the Oklahoma Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-522-3511.

Since 1983, the month of April has been recognized as Child Abuse Prevention Month.  Red River Youth Academy is helping to raise awareness by tying blue ribbons to the trees on campus as a symbol of child abuse prevention; including child abuse and neglect prevention information in residents’ group sessions; hosting a coloring contest for residents to illustrate “my happiest day” as part of the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s Child Abuse Prevention Coloring Challenge; and encouraging staff to participate in Wear Blue Selfie Day on April 6 by sharing photos on social media, tagging Oklahoma Child Abuse Prevention on Facebook, and using the hashtags #pictureabrighterfuture #OKDO1THING.  In Norman and other communities across the state, local organizations tie blue ribbons on trees and post signs in high traffic areas.

The more awareness is increased, the better the chances of reducing the number of children experiencing a childhood trauma, improving abuse, neglect, survivors’ resilience, and saving lives.

child abuse prevention month

Red River Youth Academy is located at 3400 Deskin Drive in Norman, Okla., and serves children adolescents experiencing serious emotional/behavioral disorders.  At Red River, we believe in hope, second chances, and new beginnings. We are dedicated to providing the most effective care for our residents through programs designed to target specific problems faced by youth with severe emotional and behavioral disorders and to teach them new life skills to enable them to succeed in society.  For more information, please call (405) 701-8530 or visit

School Counselors Help Students Reach for the Stars

school counselor appreciation weekRed River Youth Academy recognizes the important role school counselors play in supporting students’ mental health and helping them achieve school success, and we join our counselor colleagues in celebrating National School Counseling Week, Feb. 5-9.

The theme of this year’s celebration is “School Counselors: Helping Students Reach for the Stars.” It is the special week each year to direct attention to the unique contribution of school counselors within U.S. school systems and how students are different because of school counselors’ dedication and professionalism. Sponsored by the American School Counselor Association, National School Counseling Week highlights the tremendous impact school counselors have in helping students achieve school success and plan for a career.

School counselors make a positive impact in students’ lives by being actively engaged in helping students examine their abilities, strengths, interests and talents; working in a partnership with parents as they encounter the challenges of raising children in today’s world; focusing on positive ways to enhance students’ social/personal, educational and career development; and working with teachers and other educators to provide an educational system where students can realize their potential and set healthy, realistic and optimistic aspirations for themselves.

“School counselors work with all students to remove barriers to learning by addressing students’ academic concerns, career awareness in post-secondary options and social/emotional skills,” said Kwok-Sze Wong, Ed.D., ASCA executive director. “Comprehensive school counseling programs help to increase student achievement and provide a much-needed resource for students, parents, teachers and administrators. School counselors are integral to student success.”

Red River Youth Academy is pleased to be a resource for school counselors who work with students struggling with behavioral and emotional health conditions and the families who care for them.

Quelling false rumors

We would like to allay concerns and squash false rumors that Red River Youth Academy is closing in February. This is not the case whatsoever. There are no plans to close the facility.

Proposed cuts to SoonerCare (Medicaid) reimbursement for psychiatric residential treatment facility (PRTF) services were taken off the table earlier this fall.

  • During the first special session this fall, the Legislature passed HB1019, including funding for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, which oversees state Medicaid reimbursement rates for mental health services.
  • While Governor Fallin vetoed most of the bill, she saved the funding for ODMHSAS, OHCA, and OKDHS.
  • The funding is enough to support the agency through April.
  • This gives the Legislature time to address additional, necessary allocations in the current, second special session, or the regular session, which begins in February.
  • Presently, there has been no notice that Red River Youth Academy or any PRTFs will face any reimbursement rate cuts.

Be assured that our administrative team is staying on top of developments at the State Capitol and continues to work in our facility’s, clients’, and staff’s best interests with state legislators and government agencies.

This year, with the full support of Meridian Behavioral Health Systems:

  • We completed facility renovations.
  • Have seen incredible growth in our program and the number of youth served.
  • Added an adolescent girls’ unit and a unit for 8- to 11-year old boys, which has allowed us to provide additional resources to youth and families in crisis.
  • Residents who have completed treatment at our facility this year and their parents rate our program an average 91 on a scale of 0-100.

Red River Youth Academy is committed to providing the most effective care for our clients through programs designed to target specific problems faced by children and adolescents with severe emotional and behavioral disorders, and to teach them new life skills to enable them to succeed in life. And we maintain our sights on continuously improving our facility, our program, and ourselves so that we can give our clients every opportunity and the tools they need to succeed. Today and in the years to come.

If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to call me at 405-701-8530 or email me at

Amy Steely, LPC, Chief Executive Officer

RRYA CEO: “The cuts will be devastating”


Following are public comments made by Red River Youth Academy CEO Amy Steely at the Nov. 2, 2017 Oklahoma Health Care Authority (OHCA) rate committee hearing regarding the consequences of mental health rate and service cuts that will take place if the state legislature fails to adequately fund the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse services and OHCA before Dec. 1, 2017.

Good morning. My name is Amy Steely. I am the CEO of Red River Youth Academy. We are a 64-bed psychiatric residential treatment facility serving hundreds of children and adolescents from throughout the state each year.

The 9 percent cuts discussed today will be devastating to acute mental health facilities. What’s even more devastating is the 100 percent cut to outpatient and PRTF services that will begin in four weeks because our state legislature could not compromise on a budget.

What do we tell the DHS child welfare worker about the 14-year-old boy in their custody who is in the middle of residential treatment for severe childhood trauma? A child who has been moved from foster home to foster home for most of his life and is continually aggressive and defiant towards others.

Amy Steely 11-2-2017 SPARC meeting
Red River Youth Academy CEO Amy Steely

And what do we tell the parents of a 15-year-old girl who has been in multiple psychiatric treatment centers since age 6 and in detention centers as a teen? A child who is self-harming, being aggressive toward others, and has given up hope. With the help of her therapist and staff mentors she is just beginning to make progress and is starting to believe in herself for the first time in her life.

At Red River Youth Academy, we treat children with severe anger, aggression, and defiance issues. While society may misunderstand them as “bad kids”, we see them as children who are hurting. Who have been through painful trauma and need a higher level of treatment to start healing and adopt healthier thinking patterns and behaviors. Who will be there to help these children when all outpatient and residential resources are denied them?

Our mission is rooted in hope, second chances, and new beginnings. When the 100 percent cuts to PRTF care are implemented, there will be no hope, second chances, or new beginnings for these children. The suffering and negative outcomes will be tragic. And the ripple effect will be vast.

It is inconceivable that the status of Medicaid reimbursement for health and mental health care in our state has deteriorated to such a sad place.

Happy Halloween from the Red River Pumpkin Patch

Our residents did a great job planting, tending, and harvesting two varieties of pumpkins in our very own pumpkin patch this year. This week, they also enjoyed fun games, crafts, and trick-or-treating throughout our facility.
pumpkin collage

State budget crisis puts Oklahoma’s psychiatric residential treatment facilities for children in danger of closing

The futures of children struggling with behavioral health conditions are in the hands of Oklahoma legislators; bipartisan support for passage of the cigarette tax is needed 

Do we want children in our state to struggle with behavioral health conditions that cause continuing problems in the home, at school, and in communities? Or do we want to give them the tools to thrive and grow into productive adults capable of healthy relationships with others? Those are key questions posed to state legislators by Amy Steely, a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Red River Youth Academy.

Last week, Commissioner Terri White of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services announced that SoonerCare will run out of money to pay for psychiatric residential treatment services for children on Dec. 1 if the legislature does not make-up for the $215 million shortfall created when the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the $1.50 cigarette fee unconstitutional.

According to ODMHSAS data, more than 100,000 children received behavioral health services through SoonerCare in 2016. Of those children, 3,923 of them had conditions so severe that they sought care at a psychiatric residential treatment facility. Red River Youth Academy provides residential treatment for children and adolescents experiencing severe anger, aggression and defiance. In 2016, the facility treated children from 82 cities and 43 counties across Oklahoma – from Beaver to Locust Grove, Hobart to Antlers. The facility employs more than 65 staff who have special training to work with children with behavioral health conditions and a history of trauma.

“These children are often misunderstood because of their behavior, when they really need help processing trauma,” said Steely. “Some of our residents are unable to trust or respect adults and authority figures because they were the source of their trauma and pain, or they never had a chance to bond with a parental figure in a healthy way.”

Amy Steely 4 JPG
Amy Steely, LPC. CEO

Severe abuse and neglect changes the chemistry and structure of the developing brain. Research indicates we have until age 22 to structurally change that damage.

“Treatment helps develop patterns and habits that cause pathways in the brain to be stronger than the aggressive, frontal cortex pathways,” said Steely. “Habits cannot be fixed in seven days of acute care. Children need time to process their past, learn and practice appropriate responses to triggers, adopt healthy coping skills, and rebuild bonds. The clinical professionals and positive role models they work with in residential treatment help do that. This important work takes time and cannot be addressed simply with a short hospital stay.”

If the state budget crisis continues, psychiatric residential treatment facilities across the state will be in jeopardy of closing their doors, access to residential treatment will only be available across state lines to those with commercial insurance or who can afford to pay out of pocket, and hundreds of specially trained behavioral health professionals will lose their jobs. Ancillary businesses that provide these facilities with goods and services, such as food, linens, medical supplies, and pharmaceuticals, will also take a financial hit.

“For the sake of children, families, and communities across Oklahoma, we urge our legislators to find common ground and agree on a budget solution that includes a recurring revenue source to preserve funding for mental health services for the long-haul,” Steely said.

Time to Rally to Save Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in Oklahoma

On Oct. 18, Commissioner Terri White of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services announced that SoonerCare reimbursement for all psychiatric residential treatment facility (PRTF) services and outpatient services will end on Dec. 1, 2017 if the legislature does not find funding to make up for the significant budget hole that was created when the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the $1.50 cigarette fee unconstitutional. If members of the legislature choose to put politics over people by failing to find a solution, the result will be devastating to the many children in critical need of mental health treatment in our state.

We must ensure that every member of the Oklahoma Legislature understands the serious toll these cuts would have on some of the most vulnerable children in our state. We encourage you to share this urgent message with legislators and fellow community members about this important issue. Together, we can ensure our friends, family and neighbors continue to have access to the treatment they need to survive and thrive.

Why Action Is Necessary

In 2016, 100,813 children younger than 21 received behavioral health care services through SoonerCare. Of those children, 3,923 of them had conditions so severe that they sought care at a psychiatric residential treatment center, and 74,537 children received outpatient behavioral care.

Cutting reimbursement for residential and outpatient treatment would have a devastating impact on the future of our kids, families and communities throughout Oklahoma.

If lawmakers fail to act and allow these cuts to go into effect, the impact will result in:

  • Closure of residential behavioral health treatment facilities – eliminating access to needed care.
  • Overcrowding in our hospital emergency rooms due to behavioral health treatment being sought there – decreasing much-needed access to acute care.
  • Increases in suicide rates, self-harm rates, substance abuse, assault and battery, child abuse and homelessness.
  • Overcrowding and dangerous conditions in detention centers and jails costing local governments and taxpayers millions of dollars.
  • Lack of safe resources and treatments for child welfare to provide parents and children, including residential and outpatient mental health treatment and abuse prevention programs.
  • There will be higher demand for, and less access to, acute psychiatric beds.
  • With these critical services at risk, the burden for caring for children and adults with mental illness will be shifted to schools, police departments, hospital emergency rooms, detention centers, DHS, Office of Juvenile Affairs, and courts – resulting in a drain on their staffs and resources at a time when there is no new funding available.
  • Oklahoma families will have to pay out of pocket to send their children to other states for treatment.

About Our Services & the Youth We Serve

At Red River Youth Academy, we treat children and adolescents with severe anger, aggression, and defiance. These children are often misunderstood because of their behavior, when they really need help processing trauma. Some of our youth are unable to trust or respect adults and authority figures because they were the source of their trauma and pain, or they never had a chance to bond with a parental figure in a healthy way.

Severe abuse and neglect changes the chemistry and structure of the developing brain. Research indicates we have until age 22 to structurally change that damage. Treatment helps develop patterns and habits that cause pathways in the brain to be stronger than the aggressive, frontal cortex pathways. Habits cannot be fixed in 7 days of acute care. Children need time to process their past and rebuild bonds, and the positive role models they work with in residential treatment helps do that.

Parents also receive counseling to rebuild parenting skills.

How You Can Help: Join Our Efforts Today!

Oklahoma mental health providers, hospitals, advocates, consumers, law enforcement, district attorneys, and others have come together to educate lawmakers on the importance of mental health funding and treatment. This coalition is demanding legislators find a solution to this crisis – one that puts people over politics and ensures access to needed mental health services.

State legislators need to hear from you! Make calls, send emails, attend the Save Our Services rally at the Capitol on October 24, from 10 a.m. to noon, and share our messages with others.

To find your Representative or Senator, please visit: and enter your address in the “Find My Legislator” box at the bottom of the homepage.

About Red River Youth Academy: In 2016, Red River Youth Academy treated approximately 250 children from 82 cities and 43 counties across Oklahoma – from Beaver to Locust Grove, Hobart to Antlers. We employ more than 65 staff who have special training to work with children with behavioral health conditions and a history of trauma. Red River Youth Academy is dedicated to advocating on behalf of the children and families we serve to ensure they have access to the services and support they need.

Behavioral Health Services for Boys Ages 8-11 Added at Red River Youth Academy

Boys unit grapic

Red River Youth Academy is pleased to announce the Sept. 1 opening of its new boys’ unit, offering residential behavioral health treatment to boys ages 8-11. The facility focuses on treating youth with severe anger, aggression, and defiance, and continues to provide services for adolescent males and females, ages 12-17.

“Expanding our program to 8- to 11-year-old boys offers more resources for families of boys with behavioral health conditions that require a higher level of treatment,” said Amy Steely, Red River Youth Academy CEO. Common behavioral health conditions treated at the facility include oppositional defiant disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, disruptive mood disregulation disorder, reactive attachment disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depressive disorders, and other mood disorders.

Located in Norman, Okla., Red River Youth Academy treats youth from across Oklahoma and surrounding states. Its treatment program includes individual, group, and family therapy; recreational activities; on-site school; and medication management. Staff includes licensed professionals from the disciplines of psychiatry, psychology, counseling, social work, nursing, dietary services, and special education. All staff are trained in trauma-informed and trauma-responsive care.

Red River Youth Academy is accredited by The Joint Commission and licensed by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. The facility accepts SoonerCare, private pay, and most insurance.

For more information, call 405-701-8530 or visit


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