“Life is Change and Permanent Development”
Since 2013, the Mäander youth home in Potsdam, near Berlin, has been providing a protected environment for young people suffering from psychological illness or experiencing serious crisis situations. With support, they learn how to independently manage the challenges of daily life. The therapeutic residence emphasizes community experiences, daily structure, and meaningful work in the house, garden, or workshop. In this interview, Sebastian Sieboldt discusses the beginnings, goals, and challenges of the youth care facility.
What was the initial impetus for Mäander?
Sebastian Sieboldt: The idea arose among the employees of the hospital in Havelhöhe. My colleagues and I observed there that patients often had significant problems establishing a structured daily life when, following a stay in the hospital, they were discharged to a therapeutic residential community.
How do you deal with these difficulties at Mäander?
Sieboldt: Naturally, our residents also feel internal resistance to doing certain things or maintaining a schedule. This sometimes leads to significant problems in daily life, especially in coexisting with others. In the residential community, this can manifest itself as, for example, a refusal to perform necessary tasks. In such situations, we engage in meaningful confrontation and work together with the young person to understand this resistance, so that they understand where it comes from and how it develops. Concretely, we try to get the young person to act. Our goal is that they become open again to a structured daily schedule and learn that it is worthwhile to carry out meaningful work in the garden or workshop, and to do something for the group.
So the goal of therapy is to make young people more active?
Sieboldt: The initial focus is on the ability to accept structure. This enables the resident to master daily life and take care of themselves after they leave Mäander. But the most important thing, for us, is relationship work. That’s the foundation for our ability to have meaningful confrontations and to work on resistances. Strictness can only function if there is already a strong relationship present.
How do you develop this relationship?
Sieboldt: By being there for each other: as employees and as residents, as well as within the group. The group’s community is especially important. It is often much more effective when a fellow resident says that a certain behavior is not good, than when a staff member says so. Enabling these encounters within the group is not always easy but is very important.
Sieboldt: The young people who come to Mäander have experienced great suffering and are relationally traumatized. Their negative experiences have as a consequence – justifiably so – that their actions are too focused on themselves. They must relearn how to develop attachments and relationships.
Are the families involved, as well?
Sieboldt: Especially in the first weeks, we have more intensive contact with the parents to help them with letting go, so that they don’t have the feeling that they are losing their child. Close, positive communication with the family is very important to us. We are a kind of “replacement family,” but not more than that. Long term, we can never offer what a real family can offer – no matter how imperfect the real family situation might be. That’s why it’s so important to develop a kind of partnership with the parents, regardless of what kind of problems or illnesses the young person brings to Mäander.
Could you give some examples of situations or problems that might bring a young person to Mäander?
Sieboldt: We have a very diverse residential group between 14 and 21 years old. Some come from difficult family situations; others are at Mäander because of schizophrenia. Others suffer from borderline personality disorder or from post-traumatic stress, which can often be traced back to severe neglect or abuse.
Are there also cases when you have to decline admission?
Sieboldt: Aggressiveness towards others or drug dependency are grounds for exclusion. We have many young people here who are traumatized and highly sensitive. If they were to encounter a highly aggressive person here, they would be defenseless. Likewise, we are not a drug rehabilitation facility. If drugs are an issue for patients, it doesn’t necessarily exclude them; but if drugs are the main problem, then it does, because severe drug addiction needs a different setting than what we have here.
What is so special about Mäander?
Sieboldt: We want to make clear to young people that life is change, which means constant development. In light of this, we try to help our residents overcome the feeling that they are losers who were unfairly treated by fate. Instead, with great empathy, we try to show them that, if they accept their lives and go their own way, they can achieve much more in the end. This is typical for Mäander.
What is the experience like for you when a resident leaves the project?
Sieboldt: That is always an exciting process for all. On average, the residents stay with us for two years, although some residents also leave at a later time. Interestingly, it is clearly the young people themselves who feel the impulse to once again stand on their own two feet. There have also been cases where we weren’t sure whether the resident was really stabile enough for this next step. That it is why it’s important to us to stay in contact even after the time at Mäander. When we hear from each other again, we sense that the former resident’s stay with us was a good and important time that helped them to develop further.