And then the phone rang.
Lovejoy was approached by a board member of a group that ran nonprofits. The group was considering addressing the problem of acute adolescent anxiety—kids who are bright, talented, often have every advantage, and yet are no longer able to bring themselves to go to school. To play sports or music. To have friends. Listening to the description of their situation, Lovejoy had an epiphany.
“I started thinking of all the kids with whom my wife and I had worked over the course of our careers, and all of a sudden I was enlightened,” he said. “It was, ‘Okay, that’s what affected the kid in my history class, the kid in our dorm, the kid on Cari’s [his wife’s] lacrosse team.’ It began to make sense to me.”
It made so much sense that Lovejoy left the independent school where he had been working and joined the founding team of a residential facility in Pike, N.H., outside of Hanover. “It was my opportunity to give back,” Lovejoy said, eight years later.
His giving at Mountain Valley Treatment Center started small and has snowballed since. In 2011 the center began offering 60- to 90-day stays for young people aged 13-20. It began operating with just four kids. Within 12 months there was a waiting list, and now there are two campuses with 36 beds.
Lovejoy, also trained in counseling, oversaw development of the academic and residential programs. Now he does communications and fundraising for the center. “Carl’s passion for the MV mission is palpable,” notes his bio on the center’s website. It is that.
He explains that the young people who come to the center are from public and private schools. Some are from affluence and others from families that avail themselves of the center’s need-based financial aid. What they likely have in common is overpowering anxiety, OCD, and often depression. Many were high-achievers early in their young lives before they lost their way. Many come from families where success is the norm. “It’s the kid who has fear of judgment, fear of failure,” Lovejoy said. “Most of our kids have a strain of perfectionism. It’s the kid who writes and rewrites the essay fifteen times—and it’s still not good enough.”
“These kids, no matter how well they do, feel like the’ve failed.” —Carl Lovejoy, director, Mountain Valley Treatment Center
Often the anxiety is exacerbated by trauma—divorce, loss of a parent or sibling (Mountain Valley has worked with at least one teen who lost a family member in 9/11). The anxiety is a vicious cycle, compounding as the student misses more school, becomes more antisocial, and veers further off course. The center, he said, offers art and equine therapy, among other methods, but most importantly “exposure and response prevention” therapy, evidence-based treatment that involves the residents facing their fears gradually.
Fear of public speaking. Fear of participating in class. Fear of not meeting family expectations. “These kids, no matter how well they do, feel like they’ve failed,” Lovejoy said.
He said the center also coaches parents, telling them first not to beat themselves up. The problem may be partly genetic. It may be partly situational. “Is it nature? Is it nurture? It’s not their fault,” Lovejoy said.
He said the treatment is hard work for all involved, but in time it pays off in the vast majority of cases. More than 80 percent of graduates of the program are still in school. Some have gone on to do well at prestigious universities and colleges, including Colby. “Our parents talk about Mountain Valley being a life-saving experience for their children,” Lovejoy said. And he said there is nothing more gratifying for him than seeing young people escape the dark place that had entrapped them.
“I go to high school and college graduations,” Lovejoy said. “I go to weddings. I received the first birth announcement from one of our graduates. Those are the things that reaffirm what I’ve been doing and the decision that I made to be a part of this.
“I have no plans to retire. This has been so incredibly rewarding.”