When Sheila Wood responded to a call from Gloversville High School earlier this month, a 16-year-old student experiencing delusions was screaming about digging a hole to live in. In anger, the student had flipped desks, which were still on their sides, Wood said. All the other students had been taken out of the classroom, but the teenager was still frantic, threatening two school staff members who were in the room, awaiting Wood’s arrival.
Wood, the Children and Family Services director at The Family Counseling Center in Gloversville, began by conversing with the delusional student about the world as he was seeing it.
“Instead of trying to orient him and telling him that’s not true, that’s not real, I just let him live in the moment until he was able to calm [down],” said Wood, who was called to the school as part of the Family Counseling Center’s Mobile Crisis Unit, which responds when students are experiencing suicidal or homicidal ideations or are showing other signs of aggression.
Gradually, Wood said she was able to ground the student in reality, uncovering that he was upset with his father and didn’t want to go home. While this particular student eventually had to be escorted by police to the emergency room at St. Mary’s Hospital in Amsterdam because of the potential threat he still posed, the de-escalation that Wood facilitated is exactly the kind of value that the Mobile Crisis Unit helps to provide in Fulton County.
And the Mobile Crisis Unit, which serves all Fulton County schools, is just part of the picture of mental health and behavioral health services that The Family Counseling Center provides. On this #GivingTuesday, which started in 2012 as a way to encourage good and celebrate generosity, The Family Counseling Center is among a seemingly limitless number of nonprofits and organizations worthy of financial support. But as the pandemic has exposed the prevalence of mental health issues — and contributed to its uptick — supporting organizations that address mental health may be more important than ever. After all, research from Boston University says that nearly one-third of American adults have been affected by depression, up from just 8.5% prior to the pandemic.
“We are social beings. We enjoy each other’s company. And when we were told to go home, stay in place, isolate, that went against most people’s fibers and grains and had a negative impact on our mental well-being, our emotional well-being,” said Michael Countryman, The Family Counseling Center’s executive director.
Started in 1976, The Family Counseling Center offers an array of services to help people’s mental and behavioral health. For instance, behavioral clinics allow professionals to help clients respond to crises and provide psychotherapy and medication management services. The organization also offers children and family services and professional responses to situations of domestic violence. The center employs about 100 people, which includes therapists, counselors and psychiatric staff. In 2020, the center served 6,500 clients, a number that will likely be considerably outpaced in 2021 once this year’s numbers are tabulated, according to Jennifer Jennings, the center’s director of Marketing and Fund Development.
School-aged children have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and mental and behavioral health issues among this population are on the rise, making the work the center does to help youth, including through the Mobile Crisis Unit, all the more critical. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between March and May of last year, hospitals in the United States saw a 24% increase in the number of mental health emergency visits by kids aged 5 to 11 years old and a 31% increase for kids 12 to 17.
The Mobile Crisis Unit is designed to help keep children in distress out of the hospital whenever possible by de-escalating and setting them up with tools and resources to help them address the underlying causes that led to the incident. The Mobile Crisis team helps to identify why the child is experiencing a crisis, if there have been similar incidents in the past, whether or not there is a way to de-escalate the behavior, and if the team member and child can create a safety plan or if the child needs medical support.
Gloversville’s Superintendent of Schools David Halloran said he’s noticed the uptick in mental health issues among his students.
“I would say the pandemic has exacerbated what was already a big issue in our community,” said Halloran, citing the disruption of routine, financial hardship and health concerns among many contributing factors. “We knew we would see an increase in mental health concerns this school year,” he said. “And, unfortunately, we were correct.”
Wood, with The Family Counseling Center, said the number of calls fielded by the Mobile Crisis Unit so far this school year has eclipsed the total number of calls throughout 2020. She said a big increase has been among younger kids, including kindergartners, who are adjusting to being away from their families for the first time on top of living through the stress of the pandemic.
“They are acting out because they really can’t explain themselves, so they tend to act out physically rather than telling us what’s wrong,” Wood said. “It’s much harder to work with the young children because they don’t understand their emotions.”
Countryman said over the course of his two decades at The Family Counseling Center, he’s noticed an increase in calls to the Mobile Crisis Unit.
“Twenty years ago, the Mobile Crisis Unit still existed, but it didn’t have the call volume. As schools have progressed and the stigma has gotten better — it’s not eliminated, but it’s better — and people are recognizing and talking openly about mental illness, the call volume continues to go up.”
Halloran said schools can be somewhat limited in their ability to respond to mental health crises, so resources like the Mobile Crisis Unit make a major difference and are an important part of the overall fight for better mental and behavioral health.
“To have people who are trained to help students process what’s going on in their lives or to come in and de-escalate is a huge help,” he said. “A lot of people are working hard to try to change the trajectory of a lot of these kids’ lives,” he said.
What giving this Tuesday can give
Jennings said the center’s #GivingTuesday efforts will be focused on raising funds to help cover the cost of service for all clients in need, not necessarily just youth. Each year, the organization donates roughly $84,450 in either free or reduced-cost sessions for people who pay out-of-pocket – clients who are unable to cover the full cost of service due to high insurance premiums or lack of insurance, Jennings said.
The center is hoping to raise $2,600 on Tuesday, a total that is equivalent to 20 full therapy sessions to community members in need, Jennings said.
One of the services the Family Counseling Center offers is peer support by professionals like Kaitlyn Atchinson, who works with youth dealing with depression, anxiety and other diagnosed mental and behavioral health issues. In her work, which can range from one-on-one sessions with teens to group cooking classes, Atchinson relies on her own experience with mental illness. As a teenager, Atchinson said she developed an eating disorder. Then, after her brother died when she was 17, her depression deepened until she eventually became suicidal at age 23, she said.
Atchinson said her lowest moment came after failing to complete a hike that she knew would have mattered to her brother. She made a plan to overdose, collecting as much NyQuil and DayQuil as she could.
“I put it on the nightstand in front of me, and I just kind of sat there and stared at it for a while,” she recalled. “I thought this could be it.”
But then fear of failure stopped her.
“I got scared,” she said. “What if I fail at this, too? My real thought was what if I take these and I’m not successful, and I wake up in the hospital and all of my organs shut down and then I have to have a really long and painful death? That thought really stopped me from taking the [medication].”
In hindsight, Atchinson knows that a planned overdose isn’t proportional to a failed hike — suicide is never an appropriate response, no matter how dire life seems, she said. But at the time, that didn’t matter. This is the kind of perspective she provides when working with clients. Atchinson said she recently talked to a teen whose mood was dipping dangerously.
“I was able to relate to her and say I know what that feels like because, truly, I know what that feels like,” she said. “You just need to process what it is you’re feeling.”
Jennings said a peer advocate is often invaluable.
“The trigger can be something very small, and very innocuous,” she said. “Having a peer advocate helps because they listen and they don’t negate what that trigger might be. They also help the client recognize the trigger so they can create coping skills for the next time that trigger happens.”
Atchinson said she may never have come so close to taking her own life if she’d had support services like those provided by The Family Counseling Center.
“I was told it was something you do not talk about. You were judged and stigmatized if you ever brought it up. That was my family’s view. You don’t have problems, don’t talk about your problems. If you have problems, you don’t talk about them because that’s not OK,” Atchinson said. “So just knowing that there were other people who also felt like me would have been huge.”
This month The Family Counseling Center completed renovations on its 27,500 square-foot building on Broadway in Gloversville. The design is meant to be welcoming, with a large, glass-walled atrium as well as smaller touches, including a “cool-down room” that features couches and puffy chairs so it feels more like a living room than a site for therapy evaluations.
“When we designed this building, we wanted to take the stigma out of mental health and have people feel comfortable,” said Countryman. “It’s not your typical dry, sterile building.”
Natural light was a major focus of the design, Countryman said. That choice was as much about a welcoming aesthetic as it was about a message of awareness, said Jennings.
“So many of us have suffered through [mental health struggles] over the course of our lives, but it was not as public as it has been in the last 18, 24 months,” Jennings said. “The pandemic has been tough on all of us in so many different ways, but one wonderful ray of sunshine that has come through this is that now we are able to shed a light on mental health.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.