Mental health awareness is important for everyone, but it is especially crucial for young people, said Sharon St. Pierre, clinical director of New Hope Counseling Services, a program of Catholic Charities of Orange County.
PLAY ROOM AT NEW HOPE COUNSELING WITH DIFFERENT TOOLS TO USE IN THE COUNSELING SESSION. PHOTOS BY COLIN HORAN/DIOCESE OF ORANGE
St. Pierre cited statistics related to children’s mental health as presented by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a national nonprofit that provides education and support services for individuals and families impacted by mental illness. NAMI has local chapters throughout California.
A CALM CORNER IN KINDER CLASS AT CHRIST CATHEDRAL ACADEMY IS DESIGNED TO HELP STUDENTS CALM DOWN WHEN THEY HAVE BIG EMOTIONS.
According to NAMI, one in six youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year.
STUDENTS NAVIGATE THE HALLWAY AT CHRIST CATHEDRAL ACADEMY IN GARDEN GROVE.
Additionally, half of all mental health disorders develop by age 14, and 75% develop by age 24.
For this reason, Catholic Charities contracts with seven elementary schools within the Diocese of Orange to provide mental health services for children in transitional kindergarten through eighth grade.
New Hope Counseling Services currently serves St. Anne School and St. Barbara School in Santa Ana; Christ Cathedral Academy in Garden Grove; St. Irenaeus in Cypress; La Purísima School in Orange; St. Angela Merici School in Brea and St. Joseph School in Placentia.
Starting with the next academic year, St. Pierre and her staff will serve 10 diocesan schools.
New Hope uses university graduate students as interns.
The interns are registered with the Board of Behavioral Sciences and close to completing their graduate education in psychology, marriage and family therapy as well as social work.
Counselors spend 16 to 20 hours per week at the center, which includes 10 hours a week in each of the seven schools.
Each counselor carries a case load of 10 children at any given time, St. Pierre said.
The time working with a student can range from a few weeks to the entire academic year, the director said.
“It just depends on the challenge that the child has,” said St. Pierre, who has been working with Catholic Charites for nine years.
New Hope also provides training for teachers, so that they can spot signs exhibited by a child who could be struggling with a mental health issue and offer interventions. Those issues could manifest in the form of emotional outbursts and decreased learning.
“For our teachers, it is a combination of what we do in individual therapy and also what can be applied in the classroom,” said St. Pierre.
The top issues impacting mental health in children include: impact from divorce and separation of parents, grief and behavioral challenges such as with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity, St. Pierre said.
“Counselors do an assessment and determine what the goals will be and talk to the parents and teachers and come up with a treatment plan where we establish our goals to help the child,” St. Pierre said.
Counselor Elizabeth Sierra first came to New Hope as an intern, doing one-on-one counseling sessions with adults and children. Sierra found the work to be so fulfilling that she accepted a position as a counselor.
“It’s been the biggest blessing,” Sierra said. “The interactions that we get working one on one with individuals … We’re here to support them but I always learn so much from them as well. It is really just the connections and the growth that I love being able to be part of and watch and help encourage.”
Counselor Mercedes Flores also started as an intern before accepting a position at the center.
Flores’ work centers around helping children identify their emotions, which then helps them develop awareness prior to a potential outburst.
For the past two years, Flores has also collaborated with other counselors in leading a 20-week high school transition group for eighth-graders at St. Anne School in Santa Ana.
Designed to prepare students emotionally and organizationally for the challenges of high school, the pilot program covers topics that include self-awareness, self-esteem, time management, organizational skills, peer dynamics and family dynamics.
“The group positively impacts and shapes who they are as a person, their perception of themselves and their ability to perform and succeed in their school setting,” Flores said.
St. Pierre said they hope to bring the program to more schools.
One reason Flores loves her work is because of the opportunity it provides to embrace her Catholic faith. There are times the counselor prays with the children.
“My faith has carried me through and so I am happy just being able to transmit my faith to my clients in one way or another and also being able to pray with them,” Flores said. “Hopefully it strengthens their spirituality and supports their overall wellbeing.”
Counselors at the center do not have to be Catholic, but they do need to have an understanding and respect of Catholic faith and teachings, St. Pierre said.
For more information on counseling services, donate to their program visit https://ccoc.org/programs/mental-health-counseling-services/counseling-services or contact [email protected], 714-347-9625.