Hope. Second Chances. New Beginnings.

The Importance of Affection on Children’s Mental Health

woman and children taking photo
Photo by kelvin octa on

Many studies have been done that show the importance of affection on children and their proper development into adulthood.  Harry Harlow, an American psychologist, conducted studies on infant rhesus monkeys.  In his research, he took the monkeys from their mothers and placed them in isolation or with either a wire and straw replacement with milk or a soft foam covered in terry cloth.  The infant monkeys preferred the soft, comforting option, even when no food was available.  Those in isolation showed disturbed behavior and reclusive tendencies.

No matter the species nor situation, we all crave the comfort of a loving embrace.  “Hugs can do great amounts of good – especially for children,” is something Princess Diana, Princess of Wales, often said, believed, and lived throughout her life.  She brought care and love to children living in third world countries with diseases like HIV when most people were afraid to be near them.  The impact of her affection for those children lives on today.

Charles Nelson of Harvard Medical School conducted a study of children in a Romanian orphanage.  Because the children were lacking in attention, they would reach for any adult who came into the orphanage.  Nelson says that affection toward children is important to their brain and physical development, as well as their mental health.

Unfortunately, children who are deprived of affection sometimes develop the inability to determine proper, healthy contact and relationships with adults. They may not be able to properly process rejection and may think that inappropriate affection is acceptable.  Learning boundaries is difficult in these situations.

Even for children who do receive plenty of love and attention, it is important not to push them to give hugs to friends or relatives with whom they are not familiar.  While we want to teach children how to show compassion and care for others, insisting that they express that through physical contact may cause boundary issues.  Forcing a child to show affection to someone just because they have not seen them in a while or they brought them a birthday or holiday gift may cause them to think they owe someone something when they are nice to them, according to Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald.  There are many ways to show appreciation or thanks without physical contact.

Hugging children and showing affection to those you love helps develop a sense of security, increases self-esteem, and improves social interaction.  So, on Global Hug Your Kids Day and every day, give plenty of hugs.  Not only will you benefit from the affection, but your children will be developing in positive ways, mentally and physical, for their adulthood.

Red River Youth Academy is located at 3400 Deskin Dr. in Norman, Okla., and serves children and adolescents experiencing emotional/behavioral disorders that often involve severe anger, aggression, and defiance.  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 and to teach them new life skills to enable them to succeed in society.  For more information, please call (405) 701-8530 or visit



Signs of Suicide in Children and Adolescents

Adolescent boy photo for FB postWhen adults see children and adolescents, they think they are so full of life and have such bright futures. Looks can be deceiving. Young people are sometimes hiding fears, insecurities, and feelings of hopelessness from which they think they cannot escape.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in those age 10 and 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is hard to imagine that to these children, taking their own life seems like the only option. Adolescents may attempt or commit suicide because of mental illness, such as depression, that has not been treated, bullying or cyberbullying, to escape an abusive situation, or other situations that leave them feeling that all hope is gone.

In today’s world of non-stop interaction on social media and the internet, it is hard to avoid the constant barrage of images that make you feel like you or the life you lead aren’t good enough. President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “comparison is the thief of joy.” That was long before social media, but it is more fitting today than ever before.

Teens often attempt to end their life not to die, but to escape the pain they are experiencing. And, they often feel that killing themselves would be the best solution for themselves and their loved ones.

It is important to know the signs of suicide and take action. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides this list of signs of someone contemplating suicide:
• Threats or comments about killing themselves
• Increased alcohol and drug use
• Aggressive behavior
• Social withdrawal from friends, family, and the community
• Dramatic mood swings
• Talking, writing, or thinking about death
• Impulsive or reckless behavior

Help is available. If you notice any of these in someone you know or love, please call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), call 911 immediately or seek the help of a mental health professional.

Red River Youth Academy is located at 3400 Deskin Drive in Norman, Okla., and serves children and 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


Celebrating Our Third Anniversary

Happy Red River Week! During the week of July 1-7, the staff at Red River Youth Academy are celebrating our third anniversary, and we have some fun activities planned. We’ve experienced some positive changes over the past three years under the Meridian Behavioral Health Systems umbrella, including a complete remodel, refocusing our program on trauma-informed care, adding units for adolescent girls (12-17) and younger boys (8-11), and becoming an in-network provider with several private insurance companies.

Celebrating 3 YearsJuly 1 2018

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

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