Mosaic Counseling has taken to heart the distress signals sent by local schools – and for good reason.
According to the American School Counselor Association, Michigan is ranked among the worst in the nation for its student-to-counselor ratio.
While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has made initiatives to give more funding to schools – such as hiring an additional 560 psychologists, school social workers, counselors and nurses, with the help of the Fiscal Year 2022 State School Aid Act – the industry still faces staffing shortages.
That’s why Mosaic Counseling’s School Outreach Program – established more than a decade ago – is becoming more and more beneficial for students, especially in a time where demand is at an all-time high. The program provides counseling for students within schools that cannot afford it, and for students who are unable to get to a therapist’s office.
“We’ll probably see well over 500 students this year,” said Mosaic’s executive director, Sarah Lewakowski. “They would not be getting professional mental health services if it had not been for this program. I can’t give enough accolades and praise – the thankfulness and gratitude to the therapists on the panel that go into these schools.”
In the 2019-20 school year, 570 students were provided with individual or group counseling, totaling 3,419 sessions. The program also provides suicide prevention and crisis assistance training.
Lewakowski currently has a panel group of 11 school counselors who work directly with 23 different schools in seven districts in the area. And there’s plenty more schools that desire to be included – she said they hope to coordinate with schools in Grand Rapids this year.
The panelists are all in on Mosaic’s foundation of distributing all of its resources back to counseling, Lewakowski said, and the importance for students to receive free counseling regardless of time constraints or ability to pay.
For that reason, Mosaic received a new partner at the beginning of 2018. Andrea Campo, a former school guidance counselor, knew she could provide more for students if she opened her own private practice. Now working at five elementary schools in the West Ottawa and Newaygo school districts, she’s knocking down barriers daily in providing accessible counseling for all.
“The program has provided a literal lifeline to kids who are struggling with mental health concerns and cannot access services otherwise,” said Campo, a limited license professional counselor. “There’s no need to take students out of school for several hours for an appointment. Instead, the student only misses 30 minutes of instructional time, and I can arrange with the teacher for the student’s appointment to avoid direct instructional time and academic interventions.”
But it’s more than just the obvious benefit of accessibility and convenience. The impact of the program dives much deeper into normalizing mental health care for all students, especially the students in Campo’s age group.
“By putting therapists in the schools, we are teaching all students that it’s OK to not feel OK all the time,” Campo said. “We’re teaching that therapy should be a service as widely accepted and available as speech or occupational therapies during the school day. Every student needs certain things to be successful in their academic lives, and it’s OK for counseling to be one of those things.”
The program is also curving the perception of diagnostic criteria for a specific mental illness. Students don’t have to be mentally ill to need or qualify for therapy. In fact, Campo says only about 25 percent of her clients each year actually fit that criterion.
“We’ve come a long way in normalizing therapy for adults, and by putting therapists directly in schools, where students can see them interacting with their teachers and other staff, it makes the mystery out of the profession and normalizes therapy for the next generation,” Campo said.
That’s also paved the way for a cultural shift in the conversation on mental health, which is largely along generation lines, with millennials and Gen Z leading the way. The media has helped normalize therapy and mental health awareness, Campo says.
“We so often hear stories of the damage that TV and social media can do to kids, but in this situation, they are giving kids the vocabulary they need in order to ask for help,” she said. “We as adults in the room, we need to honor that bravery and self-advocacy by providing access to the professional counseling they are asking for.”
So, while Michigan bears the great challenge of a critical shortage of mental health providers, Mosaic Counseling and its School Outreach Program has swooped in to rescue students who need help the most.
“Health insurance providers make it difficult for both the parents, who are seeking services for their kids, and for the clinicians, who are trying to become in-network providers,” Campo said. “That’s where Mosaic comes in. By eliminating the need for insurance, transportation, copays and time for traditional appointments, we bring the counseling office to the clients. The best thing we can do for a kid who is asking for help, whether with words or with their behavior, is to do everything we can to bring that help to them.”