Jan Willem Poot is the founder of Yes We Can Youth Clinics, a mental health care facility in the Netherlands specialising in helping young people ages 13–25 with mental health challenges, addictions and related behavioural issues. Jan Willem is in recovery himself and Psychology in Practice had the honour to interview him about the experiences he brings to his work.

A quicker way to die
I grew up with an aggressive alcoholic stepfather and emotional abuse waiting for me at home. From the age of 12 I avoided spending time at the house whenever possible. Instead, I used marijuana to numb the pain and fear, and discovered that gambling and alcohol would numb my mind. I thought I had found a way to survive, but by age 18 my survival tactics included a daily cocaine and vodka habit, and began looking instead like a quicker way to die.

I spent the next eight and a half years in and out of treatment programmes. Nothing really worked. Treatment staff would try to help, but I couldn’t relate to them, and they couldn’t reach me. There was no trust, no bond, no epiphany moment that lead me to understand the route to recovery: I could see no real reason to change. To make matters more difficult, I felt more unsafe in some clinics than out on the streets, as I witnessed uncontrolled aggression, drug dealing, sexual contacts among staff and patients and so on. Every time I failed another program, I felt a little worse, and became more convinced that I was beyond help. 

Jan Willem Poot

Life after addiction
Things changed in 2004. After nearly nine years and twenty different psychologists and therapists, I found myself in a clinic in Scotland. Something clicked – for the first time I felt seen and heard, and like I was treated as a human being rather than an addict. The treatment staff were different from any I’d dealt with before, and I realised that this was because they had walked in my shoes: the clinic worked with experts by experience, people who could really relate to me and me to them. For the first time I heard success stories of others and started to realise there was a life after addiction, even for me. I began opening up to the possibility of a different life – and as I shed my addiction and self-destructive behaviour, I discovered my strengths for the first time.

After years of drifting, I’d found something that worked – and it worked quickly. I left the clinic after six months, and within a year, with my confidence high, I set up an outdoor sports and leisure organisation in the Ardennes. As a sports fanatic who loves to be outdoors, I wanted to provide a great time in the great outdoors for kids and young adults, via sport activities that stimulate co-operation, push boundaries and teach problem-solving. The organisation quickly grew from catering to several hundred youngsters to welcoming tens of thousands a year. I credit this success to the lessons I learned growing up, and made sure to do the opposite of what had been mirrored to me: the kids always came first!

It was like watching hundreds of smaller versions of myself filing past every day.

A thousand mini-me’s
Although it started out as a centre for all high school kids and young people, in 2009, more and more young people arrived at the camp having been sent by youth care institutions, addiction clinics and special needs schools. Seeing these kids brought up a lot of emotions for me. It was like watching hundreds of smaller versions of myself filing past every day: I recognised the cheating, the lying, the manipulation, and smiled at the cheekiness. But I also saw their fear, the pain, the feeling of isolation and being misunderstood. When talking to these kids, I realised that although my world had changed, the problems I had encountered first-hand were still rife in European healthcare facilities, continuing to weigh down kids just like me. I had been lucky – it took years, but I eventually found something that worked. Statistically, not all the kids who were attending my sports camp would be as lucky as me. It was infuriating to see how young people continued to be pushed through a nationally regulated health care system without any actual benefit, either as inpatients or outpatients.

It was another turning point. Something had to be done – and a sports camp facility in the Ardennes was not going to cut it anymore. I wanted to make a real difference, because I saw myself in all those teenagers and young adults: and it was plain to me that they needed a new clinic.

Yes We Can
The next year I set up my first pilot with a group of twelve young people, aged 13–25, suffering from severe behavioural issues. It was hard work, but we managed to build trust, and eventually that turned into success. I sold the sports company and repeated the pilot a number of times, and the quest for a professionally accredited youth healthcare facility came alive. Slowly but surely, Yes We Can Youth Clinics came to be. I hired a wide variety of healthcare professionals (psychiatrists, therapists, nurses, physicians, youth coaches, experts by experience), all of them with a shared working ethos: to do things completely differently, be really passionate and not be afraid to start working with some very complex young people. It was key to connect, then treat, not the other way around.

In 2011 the Dutch government officially accredited the clinic, and the floodgates opened. Thousands of young people (and their families) found their way to Yes We Can from all over the Netherlands – and eventually from all over the world. The Yes We Can Youth Clinics now caters for 150 fellows (clients) and employs over 330 staff. In 2017 we opened a clinic in a glorious thirteenth-century century castle, the second on our 17 acre estate, where sports activities are a regular part of the program and the outdoors still plays an important role in the recovery process. Of the two sites on our estate, one has 130 beds for Dutch fellows and one (the castle) has 20 beds for international fellows. Every year, more than 800 young people and their families come to us at Yes We Can.

Survey results show that treatment at Yes We Can Youth Clinics works. Of those teenagers and young adults who have completed our programme:

  • 72% no longer need intensive mental health care or additional assistance 
  • 90% remain in recovery after treatment 
  • 96% are better equipped to deal with personal problems and challenges
  • 83% fill their days with meaningful activities such as (voluntary) work or school.

Yes We Can Youth Clinics is accountable annually by publishing its achievements at the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. Yes We Can Youth Clinics is also affiliated with the Foundation Benchmark Healthcare and provides data on the outcomes of care provided (Routine Outcome Measurement, also called ROM). Yes We Can Youth Clinics also carries out customer satisfaction surveys on a structural and frequent basis.

Back in 2009, it became clear to me that my experience of many years of fruitless treatment was the rule rather than the exception. I knew things had to change, and the results of doing things differently have been astonishing.  Approximately 7 out of 10 people no longer need intensive outpatient help upon completion of the Yes We Can treatment program. Out of those, 90% stay in recovery after two years. These statistics have been gathered by independent scientific institutes as instructed by Dutch law.

To this day, the most important aim in every clinic is to create a warm and loving environment where every person can feel safe and be given a reason to change. All my negative experiences mean that I try to make sure every young person at Yes We Can feels safe, loved, connected and unconditionally accepted.

The program: Yes We Can Youth Clinics offer an intensive ten-week English-speaking treatment programme. Seven days a week, fellows (clients) follow a structured schedule starting at 6.30am until lights-out at 11pm; they receive 4 hours of intensive one-on-one therapy, 20 hours of group therapy, 27 hours of (sports) activities and 10 hours of education a week. There is no access to internet, phones, tablets, TV or any other device that can distract youngsters from recovery and Yes We Can Youth Clinics have the highest staff-to-client ratio in Europe. Half-way through the programme, at 5 weeks, family members are requested to attend a 4-day family programme designed to motivate parents and carers to take responsibility for their changed role and to commit to a permanent recovery programme for both themselves and the fellow. The organisation also offers comprehensive residential secondary and tertiary aftercare.

Jan Willem Poot is regularly called upon by the media for expert advice on tackling the growing problems within youth mental health and treatment. Among others, he recently appeared on BBC Inside Track and has featured in many publications, including The Times Magazine and other international press. For more information about Yes We Can Youth Clinics visit http://www.yeswecanclinics.com, follow us on social media or contact us at communications@yeswecanclinics.com or +31 85 020 1222

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