It’s estimated that nationwide, one in five youth suffer from a diagnosable emotional, mental or behavioral disorder. For children who receive mental health services, seventy percent of them access those services at school.*
In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control surveyed Chicago Public School students and found that 34.7% experienced feelings of sadness and hopelessness and 18% had considered suicide. Today, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chicago’s youth are facing unprecedented challenges.
The need for school-based mental health services has never been more important.
For the Michael Reese Health Trust, partnering with organizations who deliver school-based behavioral health services to Chicago Public School students is an important part of the work we support.
And yet, how do we continue to deliver this critical service when students are no longer learning in-person?
That’s the question we asked Dr. Linda Schwartz, CEO of Children’s Research Triangle, an organization providing clinical and school-based therapeutic services to children and their families. Children’s Research Triangle (CRT) has been a partner organization of Michael Reese since 2011 when Michael Reese provided a grant that allowed CRT to expand its school-based behavioral health services.
CRT works with school site liaisons who refer students needing therapy and who support the coordination of scheduling students so CRT’s clinical therapists can provide therapy on-site in the school setting. This model provides regularity in contact and a safe space for a student and their therapist to meet.
“We’ve worked in closets, in utility rooms. Wherever the school has the space, we’ll make it work. We partner with schools in communities where schools have very little, if any, mental health interventions for students,” said Dr. Schwartz.
When Governor Pritzker ordered schools to close state-wide in the middle of March, most of us scrambled to continue working and delivering services. But Dr. Schwartz and her team made sure Children’s Research Triangle was prepared and started communicating with their clients about the use of teletherapy.
Teletherapy is a method of providing therapy through a live video, using the internet, and has become an increasingly popular method of delivering healthcare services in an age where face-to-face meetings aren’t always available.
While there may have been some initial feelings of discomfort having therapy sessions over video chat, Children’s Research Triangle has continued to meet with their clients one-on-one and deliver essential services.
“Now that we’ve all adjusted, it feels more comfortable for clients. We have greater access and reach through telehealth. We made the decision in May that no matter what the future looks like after COVID-19, we’d continue providing teletherapy.”
Early in the pandemic, CRT added an anxiety and depression screening to their teletherapy sessions for their clinicians to administer bi-weekly.
“We’re certainly seeing an increase in these areas in our clients. We have a lot of clients who are in therapy because of abuse or neglect or domestic violence. None of that has gotten any better in this time. Most of our clients live in communities that have not only been hardest hit by COVID-19, but also by increased violence. All of the risk factors we would take into consideration have been monumentally exacerbated.”
“For many of our clients, we’re seeing an increased sense of hopelessness. School is a safe place, and the conversation of ‘will school open or won’t school open’ is incredibly stressful for these kids and it’s incredibly stressful for their parents. I think we all understand the safety concerns with returning to school. But it’s also really frightening to think of these young people not having the safe place of school in the fall.”
Regardless of what the future looks like for Chicago Public Schools, Dr. Schwartz and her team are prepared to continue meeting the needs of their current and future clients.
“We will continue teletherapy sessions with our existing clients. And we have stayed in touch with our site liaisons who we hope will continue to provide referrals. If we can’t be in school, our liaisons will have access to students and be able to tell who is not coming to school and who is struggling. They’ll continue to refer and we’ll continue to support these kids through whatever comes next.”