The nondescript sign on the storefront between Feldman's Books and the McDonald's on El Camino Real in Menlo Park reads simply "SafeSpace."
What that sign represents, however, is huge.
With the opening of SafeSpace, Menlo Park now has a mental health clinic designed by and for young people, aiming to give those from age 12 to 26 ready access to professional mental health services, with the hope that early help can prevent later crises.
SafeSpace's backers say they offer a friendly, relaxed, non-judgmental environment where young people will feel comfortable when they think they, or their friends, might need a mental health checkup, or more. A place, as the SafeSpace website says on its home page, where someone who is simply "not feeling like yourself," can "come talk to someone who cares and will listen."
In addition to offering professional services, the nonprofit organization's goal is to educate youth, parents, teachers and the public about mental health issues and how to recognize them, while trying to erase the stigma attached to seeking help for issues such as anxiety and depression.
SafeSpace has offices in adjacent buildings one formerly housed Gentry Magazines and the other a day spa, above Feldman's. Individual and family counseling will take place in the upstairs offices and group programs, including intensive outpatient programs where youth with serious problems can meet after school four days a week for six to eight weeks will be in the building next door. Issues such as exam and academic stress, bullying, relationships, sexual identity, depression and anxiety will be addressed.
The program will take some insurance and offers subsidized services to those with financial need who lack insurance. Therapists as well as psychiatrists, who can prescribe medications, will be onsite, with at least six clinicians so patients can find a right match.
Because SafeSpace will be staffed with licensed psychiatric professionals, youth in crisis will be able to go to SafeSpace instead of to a hospital emergency room, its founders say.
While appointments are encouraged, SafeSpace will also have someone available to talk to walk-ins.
"I want everybody from every different background to come in," SafeSpace chief executive officer Chris Tanti said.
"Hopefully, they feel very comfortable, heard and listened to, so they'll come," founder Stacy Drazan said. "Our whole model is early intervention, prevention ... to catch them much earlier than crisis."
SafeSpace is modeled on the Australian government-run youth mental health clinics called "headspace." Starting in 2006 with 30 clinics, headspace now has more than 100 clinics and its model has been copied internationally.
When SafeSpace's founders visited Australia to see headspace first-hand, they met Mr. Tanti, its founding chief executive officer, who had recently left the organization. They recruited him to join their board, but Mr. Tanti said he was so impressed by their vision and goals that he instead agreed to head SafeSpace.
Mr. Tanti started working for SafeSpace at the end of February, and is renting a home nearby. His wife and two children, who are in high school and middle school and will attend local public schools in the fall, will soon join him.
SafeSpace was born of the painful personal experience of founders Stacey Drazan of Woodside and Susan Bird of Menlo Park. Liesl Moldow of Atherton joined them early on.
After Ms. Drazan's daughter, Shelby, died by suicide in 2014, Ms. Drazan became determined to try to help other families avoid what hers had been through. Ms. Bird and Ms. Moldow have both had family members with depression and anxiety, and Ms. Moldow said she herself suffered from anxiety and depression as a 15-year-old.
Ms. Moldow said, as parents, the SafeSpace founders know what other parents want. "They want to know who can I talk to, to get what I need," she said. SafeSpace will also have support groups for parents.
The three women all have corporate experience, including taking startups public.
In October, the three women announced plans to open a Menlo Park clinic by the end of August. They opened months early although their full program will not be available until the end of the summer because they feel there is such need for their services.
Within two minutes of hooking up the phones, SafeSpace received its first call for an appointment. Clients have been meeting with clinicians in the new office, and SafeSpace's first six-week Intensive Outpatient Program for those with serious mental health issues starts soon.
Through the SafeSpace.org website, they plan to make online counseling available.
"We're not going to be one of those organizations that talks about what they are going to do. We're going to do it," said Ms. Bird.
"That's going to be our motto: under-promise, over-deliver," said Ms. Moldow.
"We've done a lot in six months," she said, in what is clearly an understatement.
Funding for SafeSpace has come entirely from private sources, raised through community coffees and word of mouth. Support has been wide-ranging. "My 10-year-old set up the computers," said Ms. Moldow.
In addition to startup funds, donors have provided art and furnishings for the offices, as well as in-kind services such as legal work and temporary office space. The real estate agents who helped find the offices gave up some of their commissions.
"So many people are reaching out and wanting to help," said Ms. Drazan.
The women believe the nonprofit will be self-sustaining in as soon as six months. "We don't have a lot of overhead," said Ms. Moldow. "We want to come up with a model that we can replicate, that others can replicate, to help kids," she said. "Ultimately, we want to go nationwide. We want to be the McDonald's of youth mental health."
The offices were located for easy access, close to public transportation and several schools. "If we were to close our eyes and dream of a great (location), this is it," said co-founder Ms. Bird.
Clinical Director Tom Tarshis, whom the women met while researching the requirements for taking medical insurance, has been hiring staff. Mr. Tarshis heads the Bay Area Children's Association (known as BACA), but like Mr. Tanti was so impressed with the vision and goals of SafeSpace that he joined the organization. The BACA clinics in San Jose and Oakland will soon become SafeSpace clinics.
SafeSpace will work with, not compete with, existing organizations such as Challenge Success and the Children's Health Council, Ms. Drazan said. "As a community, we have to come together and support the youth. This isn't something someone will win. The youth have to win," she said.
Ms. Drazen said the SafeSpace founders don't regret the hard work they've put in. "If we can help one person, it's all worth it," she said. "And I think we've already done that."
Clinic address: 162 El Camino Real, Menlo Park (above Feldman's books)
Phone: (650) 304-3906
To donate (tax-deductible): SafeSpace.org/donate
Email: [email protected]