Ameenah, now 17, experienced depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide when she began therapy last fall through Atrium Health's virtual school-based therapy program.

News, Child Health | 29 days ago

Virtual School-based Therapy Provides Kids with Access to Mental Health Support

Our expanded program unites guidance counselors, therapists, students and parents to bring children the mental health resources they need.

Tyeasha Thompson has always known her daughter Ameenah Mbaye to be a high-performing, involved student. She maintains high grades, she’s active in ROTC and she has a passion for dance. At the beginning of the school year, however, Tyeasha noticed a change. Ameenah, 16 at the time, became withdrawn. She left ROTC and dance. Her grades dropped.

Ameenah’s teacher noticed the change, too and connected her with a guidance counselor. Ameenah shared with the counselor that this was serious: The return to school brought on depression and a feeling of isolation. She thought about killing herself.

The guidance counselor encouraged Ameenah to share her feelings with her mom. Together, the three talked about a new virtual school-based therapy program offered by Atrium Health Behavioral Health Services in collaboration with Atrium Health Levine Children’s school-based virtual care program. Ameenah could talk with a therapist during weekly sessions over video chat while at school.

Tyeasha and Ameenah embraced the idea, and Ameenah began the program in September 2021. By this March, she began to thrive again with no further thoughts of suicide.

“Ameenah’s self-esteem has skyrocketed. Her grades have excelled even further. When she gets her progress report, she comes home and says, ‘Mom, look at my grades,’” Tyeasha says. “I'm so grateful for the program.”

Bringing Therapy to Students

Ameenah met with Ashley Wright, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and psychotherapist with Atrium Health Behavioral Health Services. Wright works with middle and high schoolers in eight schools in Lincoln and Cabarrus Counties.

Guidance counselors can refer a student for virtual therapy, with the permission of their parent or guardian. The student usually begins with weekly sessions, either over the phone or a video chat, held at their school. The therapist, counselor, student and teachers work together to ensure that sessions don’t interfere with schoolwork.

Each week, Wright and Ameenah discussed coping strategies for anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation and how to reframe negative thoughts. Wright asked Ameenah to visualize her future and to cling to fun plans and ideas during bad days. With Tyeasha, they created safety plans to protect Ameenah when she had suicidal thoughts, like locking up medications.

“Therapy is like a friend,” Ameenah says. “I just felt free, like I could tell (Wright) anything. Being in therapy is where I felt the most comfortable. I could just tell her my problems, and she would help me work through those problems.”

Wright says that the experiences of teenagers now are unprecedented – between the stressors related to COVID-19, social media and current events – and adults need to remember to validate their concerns and consider their challenges seriously.

“Adults can try to minimize teenagers’ stress and the things they go through. A lot of times you hear things like, ‘What do they have to worry about? They’ve been given X, Y and Z.’ But we can forget that we’re living in a completely different time,” Wright says. “Kids are exposed to more things than we ever were growing up. So when kids say, ‘Hey, this is an issue for me,’ we need to listen. These are real issues, and these kids matter.”

When those stressors become overwhelming, therapy offers valuable coping strategies.

“Therapy takes work, but if you put in the work, like Ameenah, you can see great results,” Wright says. “It takes prioritization and dedication – and full support from the student’s family.”

Signs that Kids May Need Mental Health Support

Not all kids ask for help as directly as Ameenah did. However, parents might notice changes in behavior. Signs of children’s mental health challenges include isolating in their room after school, sleeping more than they usually do, not spending time with friends and not eating as much as they usually do. Another indicator is a lack of interest in activities they usually enjoy, such as Ameenah leaving ROTC and dance.

For Tyeasha, the program allowed her daughter to get the help she needed to heal. In addition, the program didn’t require appointments at facilities far away or during inconvenient times.

“It was the best program for our family. As a working mom, a single mom, it was heaven-sent for me,” Tyeasha says. “If you’re a parent and it’s hard for you to step away from work, try this program. Reach out. Someone is there to help you.”

The Program’s Success and Ameenah’s Progress

Since the program began last fall, Wright has provided care for 53 students as of mid-April of 2022. Due to high demand, the program is gaining another therapist this spring.

“Treating that many students wouldn’t be possible without the innovation of this program to use virtual means,” Wright says.

As for Ameenah, she returned to dance, and she’s looking forward to her spring recital. She’s touring colleges, and she hopes to attend an out-of-state school so that she can explore a new place. Most importantly, she feels like herself again. Ameenah hopes that other teenagers understand the power of reaching out for help when they need it.

“When I went to my counselor and I told her everything, I felt this relief. I was like, ‘Finally, it's out.’ I had a lot of support around me, so definitely, definitely reach out. It helps a lot,” Ameenah says. “They saved me.”

While Ameenah says teens shouldn’t fear therapy, the same goes for the parents of those students in need of this program.

“I just want to say thank you to Atrium Health because they saved my daughter's life,” Tyeasha says.

Resources

Call Atrium Health’s Behavioral Health Help Line at 704-444-2400 for 24/7 mental health crisis assistance.

If you or a loved one is attempting suicide, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right away at 800-273-8255. Help is available.