You’ll find them in elementary, middle and high schools across the Chicagoland area: AMITA Health counselors trained to help students address stress, depression, anxiety and other common mental health troubles affecting young people today. These trained professionals from the AMITA Health Center for Mental Health have been improving the lives of students since the counseling service program started up in 1999.
In the first year, counseling services were only available at a few parochial schools. But the program has grown enormously since then, and now has expanded to 20 parochial and public schools for the programs 20th anniversary.
Two decades of professional counselors in schools means a lot of kids whose lives were impacted by the chance to learn how to process bullying, academic challenges and social pressures. In the 2018-2019 school year alone, individual counseling services were used by more than 400 students, and classroom presentations reached nearly 4,000 kids across Chicagoland.
The work these counselors do has a major impact on students’ school (and home) life. The names have all been changed, but these are some of the true stories of school-wide mental health programming and services helping students in need.
Individual Counseling Services
One-on-one time between a counselor and a student can result in valuable personal and emotional growth for students. Counselors are there for every single student from “Jesse”, a fourth-grader struggling with feelings of frustration and overload, to “Chris,” whose friend and classmate passed away. Chris reported later that the counselor went “above and beyond to support their family” during that difficult time.
Sometimes it was the parents who reached out to praise the individual counseling program for finding solutions for difficult social and medical situations. One of “Alex’s” parents was grateful for the mental health care their child had received and had followed through on a counselor’s suggestion to bring up a sensory challenge with their pediatrician.
Individual counseling services even helped to address violence in students’ lives. “Quinn” had been referred to the counselor after an altercation with their mother left the parent injured with scratches on her face. The counselor worked with Quinn as well as Quinn’s mother to learn what kind of relationship the two wanted to develop. Quinn received help in the classroom and therapy to help them process the ways their home life had interfered with schoolwork. After a month of these treatments, Quinn’s mother reported that her child had “performed a complete 180 … I’m so impressed with you helping [them] take responsibility, not only at home, but at school as well.”
Group Counseling Services
Group counseling services within the school give students the chance to not only learn how to process difficult emotions with a professional, but to do so in a supportive environment. Addressing issues ranging from anxiety to substance abuse, group counseling helps kids see they aren’t alone and that there are many people who know exactly how they feel.
Said one student about an anxiety and depression group focused on identifying stressors and finding healthy ways to cope with them, “This group is valuable because we can discuss our problems with others and talk freely without being judged.” Another student agreed. “It helps to hear I’m not the only one having problems.”
Other programs addressed serious issues such as sexuality and gender expression, substance abuse, problems at home and hospitalization. The Signs of Suicide (SOS) program was singled out by staff for the important work of educating students on the symptoms of depression, suicidality and self-injury, both in themselves and in their peers.
Students who had been considered at risk by the SOS program could also sign up for the Post-SOS program, designed to help them with depression, thought-stopping techniques and recognizing negative thoughts. These students reported enjoying being in a group environment where they could relate to their peers.
Other School-Based Services
The counselors at the 20 Chicagoland schools regularly go above and beyond what can be done within the confines of the classroom. These programs can act as a hub for mental health services, helping students and family members connect with other practitioners, specialists or community agents outside of the school to help them solve their problems.
Crisis intervention and stabilization programs help individuals going through an immediate crisis that involves the safety of themselves or others. Designed to address bullying, traumatic incident stress, local tragedies, natural disasters or major disasters affecting the nation at large, these programs can help kids and families avoid some of the lingering mental symptoms of a traumatic event.
Transforming the Future
Mental health services such as individual counseling, group counseling, classroom presentations and staff development opportunities are more important than ever. School budgets are already strapped, so the programs offered by the AMITA Health Center for Mental Health fill a need often neglected by strained financial resources.
This year, 70% of the cost of these services was provided by philanthropy through the AMITA Health Foundation, with a major contributor in the Fitzgerald Family Foundation Golf Committee. Last June, the Fitzgerald’s golf outing at the Inverness Country Club raised $115,000 to support our efforts and they look forward to growing this successful outing next summer with the third annual school services outing to be held on June 22, 2020.