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Creating a remarkable health experience

The AHN Chill Project: Five Years of Transforming Lives

In the U.S., 1 in 5 children have a diagnosable mental health condition, but at least two-thirds of those needing treatment do not receive it. Inaccessible and inadequate mental health support for young people is one piece of a larger mental health crisis in the U.S., where suicide rates have increased by 62% from 2007 through 2021 in people ages 10-24.

Since 2019, the Allegheny Health Network (AHN) Chill Project™ has worked alongside schools and other key community stakeholders to address these alarming trends, creating customized behavioral health programing and implementing integrated school-based services to increase care access, save lives, reduce stigma, and improve outcomes for youth.

Over the last five years, AHN Chill Project founder and program director William C. Davies, Ed.D., and his diverse team of behavioral health specialists have built a program that has sparked change and transformed the lives of over 50,000 students, 3,000 educators, and thousands of parents and caregivers across western Pennsylvania.

Dr. Davies sat down to reflect on the impact of the AHN Chill Project and discuss its latest initiatives.

Building a mental health program to support today’s students

Emily Beatty: How was the AHN Chill Project born? Why did the need arise?

Dr. Will Davies: It was very clear even before the pandemic that school-based mental health services needed to change. The support that is provided in schools for behavioral health is incredibly antiquated and does not serve the modern mental health needs of students. Limited evidenced-based preventive care for mental health support was the norm, and unfortunately still isn’t in many schools.

On top of that, some school systems have excessive counselor-to-student ratios such as 1 to 40 and 1 to 800. It’s not a sustainable model for the mental health crisis among students. The idea for the AHN Chill Project was born to provide an innovative and personalized pathway for students to get the mental health support they need and deserve.

Emily Beatty: The AHN Chill Project came about right before the COVID-19 pandemic. How did the pandemic further fuel the need for mental health resources for adolescents?

Dr. Will Davies: The pandemic dramatically increased the need for behavioral health services. We saw an incredible need not only with the students but with teachers and staff. There was collective loss, grief, and trauma that happened to everybody over the pandemic. These collective stressors led to a tidal wave of mental health concerns, post pandemic. Many people who had underlying mental health concerns, as well as people who prior to the pandemic didn’t have any mental health concerns, needed help from a system that was already strained.

However, the pandemic made the work of the AHN Chill Project that much more important. Five years later, we're in the schools and we're able to be with those students and teachers in their communities as we continue to move forward from the aftereffects of COVID.

Bringing mindfulness to the classroom

Emily Beatty: What impact have the AHN Chill Rooms had on participating schools and students?

Dr. Will Davies: There are multiple tiers of service within the AHN Chill Room including instruction, immersive skill-building involving on-site and permanent AHN Chill Room, and outpatient therapy.

The AHN Chill Room provides additional opportunities for skill building and practice within the school building, five days a week. AHN staff become connected to the culture and nuances of that school, providing consistent and proactive support.

In one of our school districts, Clairton City Schools, many students struggle with consistent adult support systems in their lives. With this program, we specifically hire therapists who we know are going to be coming back, who are invested in that community, and who will be consistent and stable faces for these students.

The AHN Chill Room brings the students that sense of stability and provides them with a very strong, consistent, and helpful adult to support them. It makes a world of difference for those students, and it allows us to pick up on a wide range of concerns happening in the adolescent mental health space. We see everything from students who are having anxiety over an upcoming test, to extreme and more acute circumstances where students are expressing suicidal and/or homicidal ideations. Because our AHN Chill Room team members can make those deep, personal connections and have those difficult conversations, we can save lives.

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Dr. Tamara Allen-Thomas: We have as a community of educators realized that education can't take place until we deal with our basic needs of feeling safe. And so, what the Chill Room does is definitely allowed the students to be able to have a safe place, to process through emotions, to be able to regulate their feelings and to be able to now engage in academics.

Jaida Walker: My name is Jaida Walker. I'm a senior in high school. I have lived in this community my entire life. The whole time that I've lived here, I've seen drug abuse, there has been domestic violence, gun violence, loss, grief. And we have a very small community, so when something happens to one person, it's like a domino effect, it like ultimately almost affects everyone and everyone can feel it. And knowing that there's a Chill Room that I can come here and talk to somebody, or meditate or debrief or talk to a friend is comforting.

Dr. Tamara Allen-Thomas: Unfortunately, here in our school district, we live in a place where violence is real. And we had a shooting where we lost one of our students. That did not just impact that particular grade level, but it impacted everyone who was connected. So having this space allow us as a school to connect immediately with resources and people who are experts.

Trauma brings us together. We had this room filled for one, and kids were in our bear den that we have and together students are the best advocates and support for one another. And that's what we saw happen.

Jaida Walker: And there will be some days whenever we go to our English class and we see a sign on the door that says, go to the Chill Room. And automatically everyone’s like, ‘ahh, yay. We’re going to the Chill Room.’ There’s a comfortable feeling leaving knowing that everyone feels a little better.

Dr. Tamara Allen-Thomas: When you leave this space, because guess what, this space isn't going to follow you in life, but the tools and the resources that our therapists or counselors provide them is what they will be able to take with them.

Jaida Walker: You have to be proud of yourself and understanding that you can only do your best and if you give your best and you cannot be upset with yourself. And I've learned that through the Chill Project.

To me, I feel that the Chill Program represents support for mental health. I feel like it's easier to speak out now than it was before and I feel that the Chill Program is one of the reasons why it's easier to talk about.

Dr. Tamara Allen-Thomas: Kids don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care in this space says, ‘we care about you. It's not about academics when you're in here. It's about you, what do you need?’ And I think that's what this space says to me.

Expanding the AHN Chill Project into the community

The Chill Mobile, a collaboration between AHN and Pirates Charities.

The Chill Mobile, a collaboration between AHN and Pirates Charities.

Emily Beatty: How has the AHN Chill Project grown beyond just schools and into the community since it was founded in 2019?

Dr. Will Davies: As of May 2024, we’re in 42 different schools. We’ve leveraged opportunities to work with other community partners passionate about making an impact in the behavioral health space. Through our work with Pirates Charities, the creation of Chill Mobile has allowed us to take our curriculum on the road to address mental health stigma in schools and at community functions in a low-pressure and approachable environment.

We’ve also had opportunities to modify the AHN Chill Project curriculum to create programs such as Chill Project for Police, a program to serve first responders who often face a significant amount of mental stress, trauma and burnout. We’re still in the beginning phases of expanding the program among departments in western Pennsylvania, but we're starting to see the impact of the program with the potential to expand. This is just one example of how we can take this model and apply it to different professions and circumstances. Another example is the pop-up Chill Room we created at the 45th annual Special Olympics Pennsylvania Winter Games to support 300 athletes.

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Matt Aaron: Just like anyone our athletes need a place where they can decompress. This is a culminating state competition, and so there's a lot of pressure on our athletes and they come out they want to do their best. Sometimes they get a personal best. Sometimes they have a tough day. They have a bad day. And so having a place where they can go and unwind is really helpful. It gives them an opportunity to come to a quiet space and just refocus.

Carols Stoltz: It’s beautiful. It’s like heaven.

Tim Spence: I was falling down, and got a bit cranky. I was squeezing a ball, and laying in that bean bag.

Interviewer: Did you enjoy that?

Tim Spence: I loved it.

Interviewer: How are you feeling now compared to this morning?

Tim Spence: A lot better than I did this morning.

Interviewer: A lot better?

Tim Spence: Yes.

Matt Aaron: This partnership with AHN is just amazing. Having employees from AHN come out and be part of our work at Special Olympics is really rewarding. It's a huge help to us in our mission. And it's a great connection for AHN employees to come out and meet and get to know our athletes. It's a really great opportunity to address not just the physical needs of our athletes, but also the behavioral health, mental health needs of our athletes.

Additionally, after the pandemic, we’ve seen an uptick in children who are delayed in their expression of social and emotional development. For instance, we had students coming back into second grade, but they are socially and emotionally at a preschool level. This creates a significant challenge among larger groups of students in a classroom environment and is very challenging for teachers. The need to address those delays in younger kids is where the seed for our newest initiative, Cai & Kate, came from.

Educating on emotional well-being through Cai & Kate

Emily Beatty: Let’s talk about your latest initiative, Cai & Kate — who’s the target audience for that and how is that unique?

Dr. Will Davies: Cai & Kate is a free behavioral health YouTube series designed for children ages 3-6. It’s highly unique because we take evidence-based coping skills that we know are very effective in treating high levels of anxiety and depression and developmentally modify those skills for a younger audience. Those skills are presented in a way kids can easily understand, and in a way where caregivers can understand those skills and then reinforce them at home.

The idea behind Cai & Kate is that we can build up that toolbox of skills among younger kids and their caregivers so they can have the highest-level daily functioning possible preventing utilization of further interventions.

Kate (Kate Kohne), who is also one of our supervisors and a therapist within the AHN Chill Project, presents these skills in a fun and engaging way through her interactions with Cai the Chameleon. We’ve had a great reception in schools for the Cai & Kate show, with teachers using this in their classrooms and counselors using the show in their offices.

The creation of Cai & Kate shows how the enterprise is invested in young kids and their caregivers beyond the limitations of insurance. This is a free YouTube show that is an investment for kids everywhere and their caregivers, regardless of whether you have our health plan or are an AHN patient. The overall organization understands this is an investment in kids everywhere, something you don’t often see from health care institutions and insurance companies, and I am incredibly humbled to work for such a place.

[View MP4]

Kate: Greetings, friends and hatchlings. I'm Kate. And I hope you'll join me and my buddy Cai as we learn more about emotional wellbeing on our free YouTube show, Cai & Kate.

Thanks to Chill Project Productions within the Allegheny Health Network Psychiatry and Behavioral Health Institute, Cai and I help kiddos ages three through six navigate the world of emotions through evidence-based coping.

Written by behavioral health specialists, our show blends puppetry, music games, and education to foster a sense of wonder as kids expand their ability to identify and talk about their emotions.

We hope that you'll join us as we introduce the important skills to help kids better understand how to identify and express their emotions and teach caregivers how to view emotions through the lens of their child. New episodes are released monthly. You can find us on YouTube, Facebook, X and Instagram. See you there!

“there are human beings alive because of the work that’s being done through the AHN Chill Project”

Emily Beatty: Over the past five years of leading the AHN Chill Project, what are you most proud of?

Dr. Will Davies: The thing that I am most humbled about is that there are human beings alive today because of the work that’s being done through the AHN Chill Project, both students and teachers. That is the thing that keeps all of us going every day because this work is extremely difficult and challenging. The data that we collect is clear — there are quite a few people who would not be alive today without this program.

It’s also encouraging to see the changes that can happen in communities by embracing more trauma-informed school cultures. The AHN Chill Project is getting attention from school districts across the country, and it’s very humbling that schools want to change to provide better support for students and teachers alike.

Emily Beatty: What’s in store for the future of the program, and what are your goals for the next five years?

Dr. Will Davies: We’re working to expand outside of the current western Pennsylvania footprint and are looking to launch an AHN Chill Project within two schools in a neighboring state later this year. We’ve developed a model that will allow us to hypothetically implement it anywhere in the U.S. and maybe someday even internationally. It’s extremely exciting to see the potential of the AHN Chill Project — how it’s grown over the last five years and where it could potentially grow over the next five.

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