How this foundation makes sure teens get the mental care they need

Hillside, one of Atlanta’s oldest nonprofit organizations, provides mental health services for children and adolescents struggling with emotional and behavioral issues. Shown here is lead therapist Christina Fiddes. CONTRIBUTED

Hillside, one of Atlanta’s oldest nonprofit organizations, provides mental health services for children and adolescents struggling with emotional and behavioral issues. Shown here is lead therapist Christina Fiddes. CONTRIBUTED

No one plans to get sick, but most of us will need medical or mental health care at some point in our lives. When we do, health insurance is supposed to cover those costs.


Not necessarily.

If you haven’t felt the sting of rejection from your insurance company, just keep living.

It happened to Maya McNairy recently when she needed it the most. After two failed suicide attempts, McNairy needed mental health care beyond the standard six weeks, but her insurance company refused to pay.

Had it not been for the Hillside Atlanta Foundation, that would’ve been the end of it.

“I would not be alive right now,” McNairy said. “I can’t thank them enough for helping me.”

When we think of health insurance, it’s normally in the context of our physical health, but mental health is just as important, especially now.

It’s common knowledge that depression and other mental illnesses can be extraordinarily disabling, and yet many people with those illnesses do not receive treatment either because they lack health insurance or simply can’t afford the cost for care.

RELATED | Are suicides really preventable?

Hillside, an Atlanta-based agency that provides youth and family behavioral health service, was starting to see more and more of those people. Instead of turning them away, the agency did the next best thing. It created a nonprofit to help defray the costs so that every child in need of care has it for as long as there is a need.

Imagine that.

In addition to providing scholarships to help defray the cost of care, the foundation also offers professional training for all doctors and staff, and plans to fund research and innovative new treatments, and expand access to treatment across the state and region.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

icon to expand image

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“When a child needs adequate time in care to stabilize and be successful after discharge, and insurance or Medicaid won’t pay for it, the foundation’s goal is to have the funds to help a family along,” says Emily Acker, president and CEO of Hillside. “I’m highly concerned kids’ treatment is unfunded before they are ready, and we want to make sure their needs are met.”

These needs can include some therapies and support not typically funded by insurance.

It’s not surprising people’s mental health is unraveling. 2020 has not only brought with it the COVID-19 lockdown, but protests, riots, and challenging conversations about racism.

Christina Fiddes, a lead therapist in Hillside’s residential program, has seen a steady increase in the number of kids, for instance, being readmitted for care since the COVID-19 outbreak.

RELATED | Why surge in foster care placement will follow COVID-19 pandemic

“When kids are isolated, they lose access to things that help to moderate impulsiveness and help them feel safe,” she said.

That includes being able to be outside in nature, engage in sports activities, or be with their support network outside of the home.

Lead therapist Christina Fiddes says the number of kids being readmitted for care at Hillside Inc. is increasing. CONTRIBUTED

icon to expand image

For most of us, home is a safe place, but for a lot of kids, Fiddes said, being isolated at home means being subjected to even more conflict.

On top of that, kids are faced with a lot of external pressure — academic and social pressure — that increases their anxiety and depression.

When she started working at Hillside 10 years ago, the average length of stay for a kid was 12 to 16 months. Now it’s roughly six weeks.

“We have had to work hard to provide the same quality of treatment and care in a significantly shorter period of time,” she said. “Kids were essentially being discharged prematurely.”

The therapy model has switched from a therapeutic model to a medical necessity model, which increased kids’ risks for mental illness.

Thanks to the foundation, not only can kids remain in therapy beyond the time authorized by insurance companies or what their parents can afford to pay, but kids who live outside metro Atlanta can get the help they need, too.

RELATED | Why more Georgia teens are attempting suicide and how you can help

Maya McNairy, the 20-year-old from Acworth, is just one of many who have benefited so far.

Maya McNairy, 20, of Acworth received a scholarship to continue mental health care. CONTRIBUTED

icon to expand image

When she was referred to Hillside two years ago, she was extremely depressed. Her sense of self was so tattered, she was convinced death would be better than life.

Fiddes showed her how to manage her emotions through simple exercises like breathing and jumping jacks.

To date, she has received some $16,000 in scholarships to continue the care she needs.

“They’ve helped me immensely,” she said.

Today she is able to hold down two jobs and is looking forward to enrolling in college and eventually becoming a veterinarian.

Professional development and new treatment innovations are expensive, but they help keep Hillside at the forefront of child and adolescent behavioral health care. That’s why the Hillside Atlanta Foundation, funded primarily through private donations, supports these critical investments.

That will not only take experts to do, it will take a lot of dollars.

We can help with that. To make a donation or learn more about the foundation's work, visit

Find Gracie on Facebook ( and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at