Finding a safe space: Middle school student advocates for more accessible therapy
Therapy can be a lifeline.
Katherine Eldredge, a student at Summit Middle School, wants to use her experience in the behavioral health system to educate her peers on the resources available to them.
The 13-year-old goes to family and individual therapy to deal with stress, anxiety and her parents’ divorce. Mental health issues have been compounded across the globe because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and she is on a mission to make sure kids in similar situations don’t fall through the cracks.
Passionate about children’s rights, Eldredge used a recent school assignment to raise awareness about mental health. Because it can be confusing to navigate the field when students don’t know what their options are, she wants to turn her passion into a career.
Though she’s only in middle school, she has her eyes set on law school at Harvard University.
“My situation and my opinion has been a blessing in disguise for what I want to do,” Eldredge said. “… I just want to really be able to help as many people as possible. … It’s awful. It’s the worst thing to see other people going through what I’ve been through.”
One tool that’s been beneficial to her is that Colorado lowered the age of consent for psychotherapy services from 15 to 12 in 2019. That means children can seek aid without permission from a parent or legal guardian, giving the child a safe, private space to talk openly about certain issues.
“The hope always is that we would love for families to be involved,” Eldredge’s therapist Ciara McCoy said. “We know that’s where the most change happens. But unfortunately, there are situations where that’s not going to happen. Thinking about what’s in the child’s best interest is probably still for them to have a safe space for them to talk about the things they need to talk about.”
McCoy was Eldredge’s school counselor at Summit Cove Elementary and is now a counselor at Breckenridge Elementary teaching students social-emotional lessons about bullying prevention, inclusion and diversity. Her mental health career started in 2013, and she worked in various places around Denver such as Children’s Hospital Colorado, Denver Children’s Home, Mental Health Center of Denver and more.
McCoy opened her private practice in 2019 and specializes in helping kids who’ve experienced various forms of trauma, and she also works as the behavioral health coordinator for TreeTop Child Advocacy Center. Through her work, she helps children feel validated and heard.
“It’s very rewarding and inspiring to work with kids,” McCoy said. “Especially when they start to find their voice, and they start to realize their voice matters. Whether they’re 5 or 8 or 13 or 85, their voice matters. They just have to use it because it’s their most powerful tool.”
Eldredge used a scholarship from Building Hope Summit County to help pay for the therapy at McCoy’s private practice. In tandem with middle school counselor Maureen Flannagan, Eldredge benefits from their different styles and areas of expertise. For example, Eldredge said Flannagan might be more in tune with her life at school while McCoy can address life at home.
Outlets and coping skills for Eldredge include her extracurricular activities like dance, theater, golf and basketball. The honor roll student likes to do pencil and charcoal drawings, photography and watercolor paintings, as well. She also has access to Building Hope’s teen center and can download apps like Calm or Headspace that help with mindfulness.
With a lot outside of their control, McCoy focuses on what patients can handle.
“Depression tends to be rooted in the past, and anxiety tends to be rooted in the future, so when we’re able to be in the present moment, then it helps us cope with those uncomfortable feelings,” McCoy said.
Yet in the age of a pandemic, those coping mechanisms aren’t necessarily as effective as they once were. Hobbies and socialization are limited. School and home are one and the same three days a week. With not all therapists being comfortable seeing clients in person, McCoy said it has been difficult for exhausted kids to tune into another Zoom call and for therapists to make a connection.
“The No. 1 predictor of success in therapy is the relationship the client has with the therapist,” McCoy said. “When that relationship starts via Zoom, I had a hard time.”
Others emphasized that Zoom counseling is better than no counseling at all.
“It can be better than nothing to connect with a counselor and to talk,” said Hillary Sunderland, program coordinator for Mind Springs Health’s office in Frisco. “But for some other kids, they need to be doing something more experiential or in the moment.”
Remote learning has also made it challenging for teachers, coaches and counselors to observe behavioral changes in students — such as increased fatigue or agitation, lack of focus or change in appetite — that could be a cause for concern. Additionally, McCoy and Sunderland have notice that there has been a surge in children seeking therapy at a time when there aren’t enough providers to go around.
“If a therapist’s schedule is booked up for six weeks, that is such a barrier for kids,” Sunderland said.
Even without the additional stress related to the pandemic, Sunderland said the liminal, adolescent age is an important time for kids. She enjoys helping them navigate a space where they still want to be young, but part of them also wants to be an independent adult. The office, which uses a sliding payment scale, recently hired a therapist who specializes in working with kids.
“In general, 12-year-olds still like their younger TV shows, but then again they also want to know what’s going on with mom and dad’s job, and they want to have responsibilities,” Sunderland said. “You get a blend of everything. … They don’t know how to say, ‘I’m nervous. I’m scared. I’m frustrated.’ Helping them to develop words for their emotions is paramount.”
As a teenager, Eldredge recognizes that peer support may be more beneficial at times, so she wants to become a school ambassador for Building Hope and tools like Safe2Tell. She hopes other students will realize the importance of mental health.
“Just because there isn’t a bruise on your arm doesn’t mean that there isn’t a bruise on your heart,” Eldredge said. “… My main message is that everybody deserves to be heard, to be helped, to be validated — no matter how big or small their situation is. … There should be no restrictions. You are the person that creates your own boundaries.”
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