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El Pomar Adolescent and Child Program: A Safety Net for Mental Health Services

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Guest Columnist Brittney Moore

Erin* was only seven years old when she began experiencing physically debilitating symptoms at school and when she was away from home for long periods of time. She was entering the second grade and should have been excited about new classmates, a new teacher, and making new friends. Instead, she experienced intense stomach pains, was unable to eat breakfast, and could not focus during class. Quickly, she began to dislike school, and her academic performance suffered. Erin's parents were concerned and took her to see a doctor. It became evident that her symptoms were not the result of a physical condition or ailment, but rather they resulted from a mental stressor-high anxiety. Her family was uninsured and could not afford private counseling fees. Fortunately, she was referred to Catholic Charities for evaluation and counseling through the El Pomar Adolescent and Child (EPAC) program.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), one in five children has a diagnosable mental disorder. Though only seven years old, Erin is not much different than many individuals, young or old, suffering from physical symptoms that are caused by mental health issues. Like Erin, one in ten youth has serious mental health problems that are severe enough to impair how they function at home, school, or in the community.  Unlike Erin, however, 75 to 80 percent of children and youth in need of mental health services do not receive them, either because they fear the stigma of mental health issues or are unable to pay for much-needed services.

In Pueblo, Colorado, there are few resources available for uninsured or underinsured individuals suffering from mental health issues. Recognizing the increasing need in the Pueblo community, El Pomar Foundation's Southeast Regional Council decided to focus on mental health issues, specifically those prevalent among youth, during its 2008 funding cycle.

In 2009, with initial funding of $36,000 from the Council, the El Pomar Adolescent and Child (EPAC) program was established as a result of a partnership between the Pueblo Suicide Prevention Center and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pueblo. Essentially, the program would serve as a safety net for individuals who might fall through the service gap.

Between January 2009 and September 2011, the EPAC program served 56 clients and provided 225 counseling sessions. During that time, EPAC offered counseling services for behavior issues, anxiety, depression, parenting, anger management, parent-child conflict, marital issues, adjustment disorders, and grief/loss. The average client received five counseling sessions at no charge, and each could receive up to 10 free counseling sessions if needed. In addition to the direct cost of counseling services, EPAC assisted individuals with transportation costs to and from counseling sessions.

While the EPAC program no longer offers its services to the Pueblo community at this time, Judge Dennis Maes, a Southeast Regional Council member feels that the program and the Council's focus contributed to improving mental health services in the area.

"Much needed services continue to be provided for Pueblo youth primarily because of the mental health component of the Safe Schools Healthy Students (SSHS) grant," said Maes, referencing another initiative supported by the Southeast Council after the EPAC grant. Support for SSHS was largely decided based on the outcomes and needs seen from through the EPAC program. "The last three years of SSHS indicate that many unduplicated client services were provided to numerous students who might otherwise have gone untreated," Maes said. "Although referrals exceeded expectations, no student is turned away."

And the impact of the EPAC program on individuals like Erin will last for a lifetime.

After the first five sessions of counseling, Erin began demonstrating significant signs of improvement and had made positive changes in her behavior and outlook. Her therapist was able to identify her main anxiety stressor, which was an intense desire to impress others and exceed expectations. Interestingly, this desire was so intense that it actually impaired her ability to do well academically and interact with others outside of her home. Through play therapy, stress management training, and behavior modification, Erin was able to decrease her anxiety, begin eating breakfast again, and no longer experienced physical pain or other symptoms while at school. Not only did her grades improve in school, but so did her involvement in extracurricular activities, like choir and cup-stacking club. Erin participated in a total of 10 counseling sessions through the EPAC program and is back on track to experiencing a successful third-grade year.

*Child’s name has been change to protect her identity.

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Brittney has been a part of the Colorado Springs community for nearly 13 years. She graduated from Colorado College in May 2010, with a degree in psychology and Spanish. In the past, Brittney has worked at Colorado College's Tutt Library, the Center for Service and Learning, and for the U.S. Olympic Committee in Vancouver. As a Program Associate at El Pomar Foundation, she co-directs the Empty Stocking Fund campaign and manages the Southeast Regional Partnership program. In addition to work, she volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and regularly participates in Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity's build days.