AUSTIN — A West Side neighborhood group is bringing therapy and counseling services to schools that wouldn’t otherwise have dedicated mental health resources.
The Mobile Mental Health program — created by BUILD Chicago — is aimed at offering young people proactive support and preventing a person experiencing a mental health crisis from being unnecessarily hospitalized.
“We provide mental health workshops ranging from trauma to grief and loss to mindfulness and meditation, because we understand that awareness and education is the first step to healing,” said community health advocate Gabriela Castillo.
The Mobile Mental Health Program is bringing counseling and therapy services to several schools and nonprofits, including Piccolo Elementary in West Humboldt Park, Erie Elementary in West Town, the Academy of Scholastic Achievement in Austin and the Greater West Town Training Partnership. The team also offers crisis services across the West Side.
The program makes it easy for schools, nonprofits and West Siders to get counseling sessions by bringing the services directly to them, Castillo said. The team members have a mobile office inside a converted bus where they host sessions, Castillo said.
“If they don’t have that space, we provide that space,” she said.
The services are customized to the specific needs of schools, organizers said. In a third-grade class at a partner school, many students were having issues with communicating boundaries, said Amanda Cimaroli, who manages the program.
“We did three sessions and activities around boundaries and personal space and respect. And now they’ve identified a lot of their younger kids are angry, so we’re offering a group for that,” Cimaroli said.
At another school, many students were struggling with grief and loss due to the challenges of the pandemic as well as community trauma that has long impacted young West Siders. The Mobile Mental Health Program held a healing circle at the school to give students a place to process their grief.
The success of the healing circle prompted the program organizers to create a 10-week grief support group available to all students at the school, Cimaroli said.
“It’s giving them a language so they understand what’s going on with them, and also giving them a space to share and build community so they have support in their lives,” Cimaroli said.
There’s a tremendous need for young people to learn about their mental health and have skills for processing their emotions so an issue doesn’t snowball into a crisis, Cimaroli said.
“We ask them if they have coping skills, and more often than not, the answer is, ‘No, when I’m experiencing something rough, I just ride it out until … it doesn’t feel bad anymore,'” Cimaroli said.
When a young person experiences a crisis, BUILD’s team attempts to get them the resources they need to stop the situation from escalating. Conventional approaches to dealing with a mental health crisis often just aggravate the situation and lead to a person being arrested or hospitalized, Castillo said.
“We don’t want to send that young person to jail because of those mental heath issues. We want to get them into the resources they need by connecting them to community organizations,” therapist David Rodriguez said.
Often, students who are emotionally overwhelmed are treated punitively when they actually need support, Castillo said. The program provides an alternative for helping students when they are in emotionally tense situations, she said.
“We’re all about support and not punishment. When you’re approached by the police, you’re instilled with fear,” Castillo said. “I really see this as a program that works to decriminalize mental health.”
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