From its inception, the Park District of Oak Park intended its new Community Recreation Center to be a safe space for all residents, including teenagers, to engage in healthy activities year-round. The promise of such a place, welcoming to kids, served as a major selling point for the rec center and its $22 million price tag.

But beyond fulfilling the exercise requests of its teen users, the park district wanted to ensure mental health needs were also being met, which is how the Community Mental Health Board of Oak Park Township ended up moving its office into the rec center.

It’s been two months since the rec center opened, and kids are glad to have easy access to the mental health board – even if they learned about it upon speaking to Wednesday Journal.

“You never know if anybody, like, needs help or not, so I think it’s good,” said a 12-year-old girl, who did not share her name.

Her sentiment was affirmed by her friend, an 11-year-old girl, with whom she was hanging out at the rec center. The 11-year-old chimed in with a brief but still supportive, “Yeah,” while her slightly older companion was speaking.

Both girls, residents of Oak Park and students at Oak Park schools, said they would feel more comfortable seeking out mental health services at the rec center, rather than doing so in an intimidating office building, should they ever come to need support.

A teenage boy, who came to the rec center to play basketball on the indoor courts, stopped to chat with Wednesday Journal. Like the girls, the 14-year-old admitted he wasn’t aware the facility housed the mental health board’s office. He said it didn’t make a difference to him, personally, to have the office at the rec center because he didn’t need mental health services. For those who do, he thought it was useful to have the agency there. The boy had a generally positive view of mental health services, albeit a slightly blasé one. 

“It’s good for people who need them,” he said.  

Mental health services are, indeed, good for people, confirmed Cheryl Potts, executive director of the community mental board. Part of having the offices in the rec center is to normalize taking care of your mental health, she said.

When someone is in the throes of depression or anxiety, that is when that individual needs such services the most but finding treatment can feel daunting when someone’s mental health is at its lowest, according to Potts.

The community mental health board helps people through this process by connecting them to mental health service providers, while also helping develop and fund mental health services in Oak Park. The mental health board does not provide services directly.

Having the office in the rec center offers a kill-two-birds-with-one stone kind of approach to wellness. One can exercise and sign up for counseling in one trip. It’s also convenient. An individual might stop into the office after exercising. Kids can seek help under the guise of working out or playing basketball.

And while the stigma surrounding mental health is eroding to an extent, it’s not far off to imagine teenagers still feel embarrassed about wanting some mental health support because they’re constantly feeling embarrassed “by everything!” Potts affirmed.

 “There’s a level of awkwardness or embarrassment or even just plain not knowing how to talk about it, not having the language yet,” she said of teens and mental health.

For this purpose, the office is strategically located above the basketball court, with a nearby staircase connecting the two floors. The second-floor office can be seen from the rec center lobby, letting those who look up know it’s there as they walk in, but tucked enough away to still feel private.

Wednesday Journal’s teen and tween interviewees notwithstanding, foot traffic has definitely picked up for the community mental health board since the opening of the rec center, which has over 2,500 members already, according to the park district.

“The first week we were here, we had five walk-ins,” Potts said.

Potts spent two years at the former mental health board office on Lake Street. Only four or five people stopped in during that 24-month period.  Two of the rec center walk-ins have been connected with mental health services and while they aren’t a part of the teenage demographic, it doesn’t mean the mental health board isn’t interacting with kids, although they’re working on ramping up programming for this fall. A lot of the walk-ins are kids interested in knowing what goes on inside the office. That in and of itself is a good thing, Potts believes.

“It’s definitely great to ask the questions and be curious and just know in the back of your head that this resource is right around the corner if you ever need it, or a friend needs it or a family member needs it,” she said.

PDOP Executive Director Jan Arnold, out on vacation, was unavailable to be interviewed.

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