By Dave Fidlin
El Cajon-based treatment facility is expanding its outreach to transgender youth.
Sovereign Health of Rancho San Diego is an organization specializing in working with youth who contend with such serious issues as suicidal tendencies, drug and alcohol addiction and severe depression.
Each patient has dealt with a specific issue — including but not limited to, eating disorders; mood, anxiety and behavioral disorders; and various forms of addiction — and hails from various corners of the U.S.
While staffers said they work with people from all walks of life, they concede that the treatment facility — located in the relatively conservative area of San Diego’s East County in El Cajon — has never served the transgender community, but they are making strides to reverse that trend.
In the past year, the in-patient, youth-focused Rancho San Diego facility has begun stepping up efforts to work with transgender youth between the ages of 12 and 17.
Dr. Anthony Mele, Sovereign Health Group’s chief clinical officer, said 14 transgender youth were admitted into the Rancho San Diego treatment facility the past few years and he expects the numbers to increase as the organization begins a series of more robust outreach efforts with both local and national LGBT groups.
The decision to overtly “throw open the gates” to transgender youth was rather happenstance, though Mele said it gave executives reason to take pause and examine Rancho San Diego’s overarching mission statement.
“Our team noticed we had a patient listed with two first names [and a last name], which we originally thought was an error,” Mele said. “We later discovered the patient was going by their opposite gender name, as well as their original name.”
“We started talking and we started to sit around and brainstorm,” Mele said. “We realized we have to do something because there are kids out there who are struggling with deep addictions and have gender identity issues. We want to be a safe place for these kids.”
Square one was a few years back and the first few baby steps taken toward a full-fledged transgender-geared program have been what Mele described as “an organic process.”
Several Sovereign Health staffers are helping head up the transgender-focused program at Rancho San Diego.
Leaders include Marilee Wasell, a doctor who serves as the treatment center’s training director, and Jason Hennick, the center’s program director.
Hennick said he has seen positive results, based on the 14 transgender youth who have completed one of the recovery programs within the past few years.
“For a lot of these kids, it’s the first time they feel accepted,” Hennick said. “We’re starting to see some of them start to come alive. It’s powerful.”
Wasell, who has worked in the past with such organizations as the San Diego LGBT Community Center in Hillcrest, said she has heartily advocated bringing a transgender-focused program to the Rancho San Diego treatment facility.
“Even for the most well-adjusted child, adolescence is a confusing time,” Wasell said. “But for transgender youth, you have risks factors, such as body type. It just hits them right in the face.”
As is the case with many of Rancho San Diego’s treatment programs, the transgender-focused effort encompasses a mixture of peer support activities and person-specific treatment plans.
Mele emphasized that Rancho San Diego’s transgender-focused program is geared specifically toward youth dealing with very serious conditions, in addition to their gender identity issues.
As with any of Rancho San Diego’s treatment programs, patients are admitted through a referral process from physicians and other experts. Mele said the transgender program, as with many others, is funded through insurance and other private payment programs.
Patients go through an intensive in-house program, lasting from 40 to 60 days, then receive an after-care follow-up program.
Amber Cyphers Stephens, chief communications officer with the San Diego LGBT Community Center, said while The Center does not yet have a formal relationship with the Rancho San Diego treatment facility, they are looking into it.
“We don’t have anyone in our Behavioral Health Services department who’s familiar with the program yet, but BHS staffers are reaching out to meet with them,” Cyphers Stephens wrote in an email. “There is a process for vetting any program we work with.”
Sovereign Health of Rancho San Diego is located at 2815 Steele Canyon Road. For more information about the treatment facility, visit sovteens.com. To look into The Center’s Transgender Services programs, visit tinyurl.com/zwda7q9.