Momentous Institute executive director Jessica Trudeau (left) and clinical director Alina Ponce pose for a photograph in a therapy playroom. Since March, the institute has been forced to move all of its counseling services online.
As the coronavirus crisis drags into another month, an Oak Cliff-based nonprofit thats long been devoted to healing the social-emotional wounds of children and their families can sense the pandemic ratcheting up pressure to the rupturing point:
A job stripped away from a mother already struggling to feed her kids. An adolescents faltering foothold on stability as tensions turn to blows between his parents. The zombie-like shutting down of a 5-year-old after a family members coronavirus death.
The staff of the Momentous Institute already hears the low roar of an approaching mental health crisis, especially within those communities that lack the access to resources that the rest of us take for granted.
The institute, recognized nationally for creating success for at-risk kids, runs a school for 3-year-olds through fifth-graders in Oak Cliff. It offers therapeutic services there as well as at its Harry Hines Boulevard operation and in various communities. Plus, the institute provides research and training to help scores of kids whom Momentous team members will never even meet.
Momentous is hardly alone in sounding the alarm. Research backs up this scary second wave: Peoples mental health needs increase after disasters, especially those like the COVID-19 pandemic in which so many people are isolated at home without support.
One of North Texas leading experts on mental wellness, Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, with UT Southwestern, recently described the building tsunami to Dallas City Council members: The pandemic we are going through is really scary. But the pandemic of the virus itself is going to very rapidly be followed by a pandemic of a mental health crisis that will overwhelm us.
The walls of defense in Texas are lousy. The latest analysis of the 50 states and D.C. by Mental Health America says the state ranks 51 out of 51 for overall access to mental health care and 28 out of 51 for childrens access. Forty percent of Texas children in need of services dont receive them, according to the Commonwealth Funds 2018 states scorecard.
The wheels can fall off the bus for all of us in times like this, Momentous executive director Jessica Trudeau told me, but our African American and Latinx families, especially those with economic challenges, are being disproportionately impacted.
Momentous, which moved its school classes and therapeutic operation online in March, serves more than 5,000 North Texas children and their families annually.
The average income of Momentous clients is about $30,000 per family; no one is turned away because of inability to pay. Referrals come from school districts, Childrens Medical Center Dallas, Child Protective Services and other agencies.
Alina Ponce, Momentous clinical director, told me that conducting therapy sessions online can be challenging for both the therapist and client. Internet access is spotty. The home may not be a safe space to talk honestly. And imagine trying to effectively lead play therapy with young children from a remote location.
In almost every session, Ponce and her colleagues see warning signs that parents have fallen into survival mode and children are sensing new trouble. Many of them already were working through trauma, and now were seeing the layering on of new pandemic-induced trauma, she said.
Momentous counselors are well-acquainted with the toll that the toxic stress of poverty and accompanying struggles take on mental health. In those households, its almost impossible to maintain boundaries between adult worries and kid worries.
In turn, that level of stress now only worse because of the pandemic changes a childs still-developing brain in ways that are difficult to undo.
With loss and anticipatory grief paralyzing many of these families, therapists often reset the adults attention on their childrens core needs of safety and consistency.
In this time of upheaval, this is affecting parents ability to give even that, Ponce said. Parents are expressing fears about how to navigate their own emotions.
For example, one recent therapy session that was planned around the child in the household unwound when mom was all over the place because of conflict in the marriage, Ponce said. In this case, the therapist was able to switch gears to work through the session as best she could, then add appointments to help the mom separately while continuing with the child.
Some Momentous therapists have sufficient history with a family that theyve barely missed a beat, even with a 5-year-old who is able to continue processing whats necessary, Ponce said. Other kids cant handle it at all its just too much.
Sensing that in some households even the basics for survival might not be present struggles to get food on the table, for instance counselors also try to figure out how they might open the door to get more information.
Ponce shared the story of a counselor who realized the parent had only one online tool her own phone to provide for her childs online classes. No devices, no tablets for the child to do their schoolwork on. The therapist helped persuade the school to provide more assignments that could be done on paper.
The stories from Momentous are poignant evidence of why community and state leaders need to get busy with policies and funding to prepare for what schools will face when children return to their classrooms. Otherwise, the coronavirus will swell the already staggering equity divide in North Texas.
Theres going to be this concern that oh my gosh, were so behind on academics, Trudeau said, but students will never get there unless resources are in place to repair the social and emotional trauma, particularly of a districts most vulnerable students who have nowhere else to turn for help.
Part of Momentous longtime success in growing mental well-being springs from the partnerships it creates with its clients. The staff both teachers and counselors listens to the families rather than simply overlaying solutions they decide will work.
Momentous also knows that now more than ever, its families need hope that things can get better, which is why its doubling down on its strengths-based strategy.
If all people hear is whats wrong, and whats wrong with my reaction as a parent, thats a beat-down, Trudeau said. But if I hear validation of my concerns and heres what you can build on, thats a place I can start from in healing.
Funded by the Salesmanship Club and around for about 100 years, the Momentous Institute is a very special piece of the mental wellness puzzle in North Texas. But well need a much bigger solution than Momentous or all our nonprofits combined can provide to mend the coronaviruss damage.
I hope all of you bosses of government, business, education and places of worship are listening: This is my first challenge to you to help and it wont be my last.
Step in with expertise and resources to bolster telemedicine framework. Protect mental health services when you start whacking budgets. Make sure that, when teachers return to the classrooms, their own emotional health is strong because they will be on the front lines of ensuring fragile childrens mental well-being.
A real fix would require us all to demand that our state leaders tell us how long they intend for Texas to be 51 out of 51 when it comes to mental health care.
Spending the kind of money that would pull the state out of its dead-last ranking wont be popular, but as Trudeau told me, we continue kicking this problem down the road at our own peril.
The choices we make including how we treat one another and how were supporting each other through this, she said, that is going to be how strong we come out of this.
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