Duluth police Lt. Brad Wick says mental health has become a prevalent issue encountered by officers in the Duluth area. He's seen mental health issues affect Duluth residents of every age.

"We think mental health issues are so adult-oriented but youth deal with it, too," Wick said. "Some kids that we deal with on a regular basis need someplace to go."

Now, thanks to a recent addition of mental health services in Duluth's Central Hillside, more kids and families can access much-needed counseling.

Neighborhood Youth Services (NYS) announced the addition of an on-site clinical therapist at an open house Tuesday at the Washington Center, 310 N. First Ave. West. About 30 people from various community organizations attended, including representatives from the Duluth Police Department, Mentor Duluth, the Duluth Area Family YMCA and SOAR Career Solutions.

Jessica Peterson, director of community services for Neighborhood Youth Services, said the after-school programs at NYS serve children ages 5 to 18. NYS, operated by Woodland Hills, serves more than 700 kids in the area, she said, and provides free tutoring, meals and recreational activities.

"Our goal is to take out barriers to address our kids' whole-child wellness," Peterson said.

NYS provides Duluth's youth with education on healthy lifestyles and social skills. The organization also runs the Jobs, Education and Training Food Program, geared to help kids develop job skills related to the food industry or identify a potential occupation and corresponding educational path.

Three weeks ago, NYS added mental health counseling to the list of services it can offer drop-in youth.

Sonja Wildwood, the on-site therapist provided through Cambia Hills mental health programs, now is offering individual and family counseling at NYS Monday through Friday. She said her counseling focuses on building communication skills, such as identifying emotions and coping skills.

"It was pretty obvious to me some of those basic skills were needed," Wildwood said. "We really see a benefit being able to teach kids, putting words to their emotions."

Mental health services are needed but have not always been accessible, she said, because of insurance issues or an inability to afford them.

Wildwood said Tuesday there is not yet a wait-list for mental health services at NYS. A child in need of those services can be referred to her by caregivers, a social worker, school staff, community programs or the court system.

Mental health services were not the only addition NYS celebrated on Tuesday. The program also has a new kitchen, updated three weeks ago, and has been harvesting produce from a garden planted last spring. The garden is yielding pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, kale and other greens this fall. NYS calls the garden the "edible edge" of the organization's playground area.

Princess Kisob, the on-site program director, said the vegetables have been used in the organization's free meals. She made spaghetti a few nights ago using tomatoes from the garden.

"We're teaching them how to take care of something from beginning to end," Kisob said of kids tending the garden. "It really has been infused in our everyday cooking."

And Peterson said the updated kitchen helps the organization provide youth with free meals and snacks every day.

"Food is central to what we do here," Peterson said. "It's a basic need but it's also a community builder."

Duluth police officer Tom Sewell said he visits Duluth's various youth centers often. He said kids in Duluth need more positive places to go to interact.

"Trying to be a positive influence for these kids is vital," Sewell said. "For these kids, this is their safe zone."

Find more information about Neighborhood Youth Services at www.woodlandhills.org/community-services.