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Psychiatrist looks to find the superhero in every child


Since many of his young patients at Peak Behavioral Health Services in Santa Teresa have attempted suicide and have already told their stories to parents, EMTs and emergency-room doctors, psychiatrist Dr. Peter Sangra will “focus on something completely different” to begin their treatment.

Imagine you’re Aladdin with a magic lamp, he might say to a 12-year-old or teenager. What are your three wishes? Or he’ll ask, what do you want to be in life? or who would you want to be with on a desert island? Those answers, combined with a careful study of each patient’s case file, become the first steps on the road to recovery.

Sangra said he also knows that “every kid has a superhero in them,” and he seeks to bring it out in therapy to help each patient focus on his or her inner strength and resiliency. He works with each child or teen to focus “my faith in who I am,” and to add his or her uniqueness as “another skill in their superhero tool belt,” said Sangra, whose wedding ring has a large, red Superman “S” on it.

Sangra’s work has become even more challenging since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social isolation that has resulted.

Despite a perceived attachment to social media, “most kids prefer face-to-face conversations,” he said. They want to connect at a deeper level. For many of them, that isn’t been possible at home or at school. Parents often have no idea that a child or adolescent is struggling emotionally or is seriously contemplating taking his or her life.

The pandemic has made the situation even worse, because school-age children don’t have access to school-based athletics and other “therapeutic modalities” centered around their hobbies and personal interests, Sangra said.

“Kids are pretty resilient,” he said, but adjusting to the “new norm” is difficult, even for the most well-adjusted child or teen in a country where about half of adults have mental health issues and anxiety is a common malady; drug and alcohol addiction is widespread; and the use of methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and alcohol is increasing among teenagers.

Social isolation has also caused increases in domestic violence, trauma and abuse, Sangra said. And, fear of COVID has raised levels of anxiety, depression and other cognitive disorders for children and adults, he said.

“Fear never produces anything positive,” Sangra said, and he said it has a more severe impact on some kids than the virus itself. They develop a distorted perception of reality and may take drugs or attempt suicide to combat their fears, he said. 

Social distancing often means that Sangra must conduct online therapy sessions via Zoom or other platforms, especially those involving families. Online or in person, “we’ve had good success” treating families, he said, “if they are willing.”

On the plus side, the pandemic has given families an opportunity to get closer, and has given communities, churches and other social organizations a chance to grow stronger, Sangra said.

Originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Sangra completed a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine in El Paso and completed his residency in Louisiana, where he started an annual holiday toy drive for the children at a nearby hospital that continues to this day.

Sangra joined Peak in 2017. “I see Peak as a beacon of light and hope in dark times,” he said. “It is our combined team effort that makes great success.”

Peak is located at 5065 McNutt Road in Santa Teresa and an outpatient clinic at 390 Calle de Alegra in Las Cruces. Visit www.peakbehavioral.com/contact.