RICHMOND, Va. -- A Richmond nonprofit is addressing disparities and making sure all children have access to mental health support following a 24% uptick in children's mental health-related visits to emergency rooms, according to the CDC.
Katie Francis, Program Manager for ChildSavers, said the children's mental health services nonprofit was seeing an increase in kids who were making self-harming statements or suicidal statements.
"Looking through our data alone, I think we've had almost a 50% increase in our safety assessment reports over the past year," said Francis.
The pandemic, she said, highlighted the gap in mental health services and the disparities in access to those services, especially among Black and brown Americans.
But since 2015 ChildSavers has been working to change that.
"We are committed to seeing those kids, even if insurance says we're not going to pay for this anymore," Francis said.
Francis said the nonprofit recently launched group therapy for teens focused on racial identity and race-based stressors. They also offered outpatient services and are inside 10 Richmond Public Schools. Recently expanding to three additional schools, including Carver Elementary, Blackwell Elementary and Boushall Middle School.
Francis said 91% of the youth served in those schools were Black.
"Kids get referred to those clinicians, and they do play therapy, talk therapy, group therapy, art therapy," Francis said. "Those moments of connection that really helps build trust and relationship, and also, just helps the kids feel seen."
A 2018-2019 ChildSavers analysis showed evidence of the impact school-based programs were having. It reported that over half of school-based clients from the first nine weeks until the fourth nine weeks showed improvement in grades. 35% of school-based clients had a D or F average in the first 9 weeks. Of those students, 70% improved their grades by the fourth nine weeks.
The analysis also found nearly half of all school-based clients saw a decrease in conduct referrals.
"It really helped me in that aspect of just learning how to properly communicate," said Tydaja Safewright.
Safewright was not in the school-based program but participated in outpatient therapy with ChildSavers for six years, starting at the age of 12.
"Communication was my biggest problem; I just would avoid it at all costs," Safewright said.
The 21-year-old now works as a medical assistant and is a small business owner, but firmly believes she wouldn't be in the place she is today, without the therapy she received.
"I would come full of emotions full of questions, concerns, and problems right after school," Safewright said. "It was a big relief. Being able to come and vent to this person without judgment. Without any crazy looks like why are you thinking that? It was a real safe zone."
That safe zone came in the form of Katie Francis, who was Safewright's therapist.
"It was like having a personal diary that gave me feedback, it was amazing," Safewright said.
Francis said while the organization had seen many successes in treating youth, they still faced challenges in getting help to those who needed it.
"There is still that stigma of there's something wrong with you if you need this support."
Francis believed in order to continue to address the rise in mental health issues and the disparities in accessing help, there needed to be more school-based programs and support for caregivers. She believed telehealth should continue to eliminate transportation or scheduling barriers.
Francis also said the nonprofit was working to find ways to develop youth constituency boards to look at some of the services and make recommendations or advocate for things organizations should be doing to support them and future youth.