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As the pandemic has magnified some of students’ stressors and struggles, this school year the Houston Galveston Institute (HGI Counseling) will offer therapy to students and families at 37 Lamar Consolidated Independent School District (LCISD) schools.
HGI Counseling is a nonprofit that started in Galveston in 1978 and now primarily serves the mental health needs of people in the Houston area and Fort Bend County.
“Our work includes a lot of different ways of looking at systems and how they work together, how we kind of think and talk about what’s going on with each other in our relationships, in our work relationships, in our family relationships, in our community,” said Sue Levin, executive director of HGI Counseling.
Five years ago, a therapist with HGI Counseling was working with Attack Poverty, a nonprofit which was near Pink Elementary School. The therapist started helping with students at the school, and the relationship between HGI Counseling and LCISD began forming through discussions with LCISD Director of Student Services Jennifer Roberts that were focused on how the district’s students could benefit from services at more schools.
Roberts said counseling inside schools helps students because it breaks down perceived and financial barriers to access of mental health services. She said some families would not reach out for assistance outside school, but for many of them, campuses are safe, accepting environments to seek and find help.
“From our schools and how we have gotten from one part-time therapist to now 37 schools with an embedded partner has been because there has been success with students, from social-emotional ways, behavior and grades and attendance and overall school climate. It’s so encompassing,” Roberts said.
She explained that at first, the counselors would have to work with teachers to allow their students to take class time to go to counseling. Over time though, LCISD teachers have seen the benefits and now encourage their students to go, she said.
“So it switched from, ‘You can only have them during lunchtime’ to ‘You just tell me, and we’ll make sure we make it happen,’” Roberts said.
Last year, HGI Counseling was in 12 LCISD schools. Roberts said the reach to 37 schools this year was part of a natural growth trend, but the timing was good as COVID-19 has sharpened the need for mental health services. She said hearing from principals and people that have been in contact with families since the pandemic began shows a deeper need for counseling in schools as students navigate something no one today has previously experienced.
Levin noted that the pandemic and its isolation have brought to the surface issues for many students and families that were already there and have heightened the importance of addressing them. She said new stressors like the possibility of getting COVID-19 or losing a job or a business, and for some, those coming to reality, have also taken a toll on mental health. Levin said counselors are seeing issues from situational depression and anxiety to those related to more long-term struggles.
“I think also the expectation of the stress in families and the challenges of managing family violence and abuse at home during this time, where kids have been more isolated and don’t have the support that they usually have when they’ve been in school is going to be something we’ll see the aftereffects of as well,” Levin said.
She also predicted that going back to in-person instruction will cause separation anxiety for some students after they have been home so long.
Therapy and mental health services can be very expensive for families. Roberts called offering free in-school therapy a “game changer” because in the choice of buying food or keeping the lights on or getting children counseling, counseling will not win. Levin said having a child seen during school also frees up a parent from having to leave work to take him or her to sessions. HGI Counseling realizes that some parents are unable to take time away from work to participate in their child’s therapy via teletherapy but invites them if they are able.
Virtual and in-person instruction for LCISD’s more than 35,800 students starts on Monday, Aug. 24. Since some students will still be learning from home, HCI Counseling will be providing teletherapy sessions.
The initiative is being funding by the Henderson-Wessendorff Foundation, the George Foundation and LCISD.
“From the school’s perspective, being able to partner with our community partners to provide whatever services are needed for our students is really important,” Roberts said. “And to have entities like HGI come alongside a district and partner to provide resources is really how we have to do things. And it’s been a tremendous, tremendous blessing to everybody.”