Mobile mental health program offers counseling to West Side youth in need

AUSTIN — A West Side neighborhood group is bringing therapy and counseling services to schools that might not otherwise have dedicated mental health resources.

The Mobile Mental Health program — created by BUILD Chicago — aims to provide young people with proactive support and to prevent a person in mental health crisis from being hospitalized unnecessarily.

“We offer 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 towards healing,” said Gabriela Castillo, community health advocate.

The mobile mental health program provides 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. Team members have a mobile office inside a converted bus where they hold sessions, Castillo said.

“If they don’t have that space, we provide that space for them,” she said.

Services are tailored to the specific needs of schools, organizers said. In a third-grade class at a partner school, many students had trouble communicating boundaries, said Amanda Cimaroli, who runs the program.

“We did three sessions and activities around boundaries, personal space and respect. And now they’ve identified that a lot of their young kids are angry, so we’re coming up with a group for that,” Cimaroli said.

At another school, many students were dealing with grief and loss due to the challenges of the pandemic as well as the community traumas that have long plagued young West Siders. The mobile mental health program held a healing circle at school to give students a place to grieve.

The success of the healing circle prompted program organizers to create a 10-week bereavement support group available to all students at the school, Cimaroli said.

“It gives them a language so they understand what’s going on with them, and also gives them space to share and build community so they have support in their lives,” Cimaroli said.

There is a huge need for young people to learn more about their mental health and to have skills to process their emotions so that a problem doesn’t turn 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 going through something difficult, I push through it until…it doesn’t feel bad anymore’ , Cimaroli said.

When a young person is in crisis, the BUILD team tries to provide them with the resources they need to prevent the situation from escalating. Conventional approaches to dealing with a mental health crisis often only make the situation worse and lead to a person’s arrest or hospitalization, Castillo said.

“We don’t want to send this kid to jail because of these mental health issues. We want to connect them to the resources they need by connecting them with community agencies,” said therapist David Rodriguez.

Often emotionally overwhelmed students are treated in a punitive way when they really need support, Castillo said. The program provides an alternative to help students when they find themselves in emotionally strained situations, she said.

“We are all about support, not punishment. When you are approached by the police, you are instilled with fear,” Castillo said. “I really see this as a program that works to decriminalize mental health.”

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