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Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the world and affects one in every four Americans. Sadly, the rate of mental illness is dramatically higher in the low-income communities we serve. Exposure to high stress and trauma alters brain development, cuts lives short, and traps families in a cycle of poverty. However, the opportunity to intervene and change course has never been more promising. As pioneers of mental health care, we leverage innovative solutions to strengthen mental wellness for the City’s most vulnerable, placing them on track to beat the odds.
Learn more about these innovative solutions below.
Far too often, mental health is connected with a stigma, with helplessness, or not even mentioned at all. Yet recent research and events have shown that mental wellness is fundamental to economic, physical, and social well-being. Still, it is dangerously scarce in the communities that most need support. In the South Bronx – home to the poorest congressional district in the country and home to thousands of children and families we serve – only one mental health worker serves every 851 residents (versus one for every 169 residents only blocks away in more affluent Manhattan). In Brooklyn and the Bronx, there are only treatment slots for 1% of children ages 0-4 and 12% of children ages 5-17 who have treatment needs.
The chasm between the need for mental health care and the accessibility is startling. First, families need to be educated on mental health and how it can be affected by serious situations like the loss of a job or domestic abuse. This knowledge is far from commonplace. Second, significant resources are required to obtain services once you realize that you need them.
Sheltering Arms takes a non-traditional approach to meeting families where they are with the mental health services they need most. Throughout decades of mental wellness leadership, we have developed best practices which have changed lives, rewritten the narrative around mental health, and leveled the playing field.
In the face of a pervasive mental health crisis in New York City, we dare to try new methods for strengthening mental wellness for New York’s most vulnerable. Long before the City was able to build a case for universal mental health services for our youngest children, Sheltering Arms and our Queens partner Safe Space were providing mental health care to children ages 0 to 5. The program, called Seen & Heard, gives voice to infants and toddlers who have been exposed to trauma (abuse, neglect, violence, poverty, or other adverse experiences) and allows caregivers to intervene before trauma can alter a child’s chances at long-term success. Strengthened with healthy coping strategies from a young age, children leave the Seen & Heard program with the skills to achieve their greatest potential.
We relieve families of the burden of seeking out mental health care by offering services when and where families need them. Our three Article 31 Mental Health Clinics are integrated within our Family Resource Centers where youth and families regularly visit for events, education, resources, and other programs. For example, when a mom is seeking the support of the Family Preservation program for a domestic violence issue, she only needs to walk upstairs to the clinic for relief of her anxiety or depression.
We’re also pioneers of school-based mental health care. Our Kidwise program embeds mental health care professionals in low-income elementary and middle schools where they can reach underserved children and their families despite language barriers, stigma, or knowledge gaps. Within our schools, our Kidwise staff can identify and treat mental illness or developmental delays, opening doors to academic success for at-risk children.
Kidwise students have overcome behavioral health issues through the program.
Based on the success of Kidwise, we also embed mental health experts in our Early Childhood Education centers where they can support children and parents impacted by difficult new diagnosis, as well as in our Far Rockaway Youth Center, where teens seek support for exposure to higher-than-usual stress and trauma. By providing services in the spaces where children and families naturally feel safe and comfortable, we are able to reach many more vulnerable individuals.
The success of all of our programs rests on our compassion for children and families and our deep understanding of the traumatic experiences that inform their behavior. By healing past wounds, we free our youth and families to focus on social, academic, and professional development and to rebuild families separated through foster care placement.
A majority of youth in our Juvenile Justice Program have experienced past trauma resulting in PTSD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, self-harm, and other aggressive or violent behaviors. Our Creative Arts Therapy (CAT) program empowers our justice-involved youth to process past trauma and provides a positive outlet for the expression of overwhelming emotions in the future.
Trauma-informed methods like CAT ensure youth and families can finally release the burden of past trauma to focus on brighter futures.
For our families, mental illness exists as a product of social and economic instability. Our families face severe poverty, food insecurity, housing instability, street violence, and more. These stressors manifest in mental illness at staggering rates. Children diagnosed with ADHD or parents diagnosed with anxiety will benefit from treatment, but cannot truly heal until the root causes of their illness are addressed. That’s why our mental health interventions work in tandem with social supports.
In our Community Schools program, we embed mental health services and group therapy for both students and families into the school site, but we also provide social supports – referrals to food, housing, child care, health care, and more. We’ve helped transform the schools into hubs for community life, which support socio-economic development for the whole neighborhood.
Our mental health programs provide positive results because we rely on research-proven methods at every opportunity. When Hurricane Sandy devastated our Far Rockaway and Lower East Side families, we turned to proven methods developed to support traumatized children in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Our Resiliency Project was born and Save the Children’s Journey of Hope curriculum to traumatized children and families.
reduction in PTSD symptoms among children who participated in the resiliency project
Journey of Hope was so successful for healing trauma among our children impacted by Sandy that we integrated it into each of our Early Childhood Education programs. Called “Junior Journey of Hope,” this signature program helps children ages 0-5 learn to express complex emotions and cope with toxic stress with a mental health specialist, well before behavioral challenges can develop into mental illness. We are excited to expand best practices from Junior Journey of Hope to our ECE centers, creating a blueprint for psychosocial interventions at early ages.
With a distinguished reputation for providing innovative mental health solutions for our most vulnerable children and families, we have become a go-to partner for the City in their new ThriveNYC mental health initiative. We were selected as just one of 14 community organizations to train staff and improve access to mental health care in their communities through the Connections to Care program. This is a unique dual-generation approach that can break the cycle of poverty for the children and caregivers participating in the program.