When Patricia Butler retired, she expected to spend most of her sunset years relaxing. She’d completed a long career in education while raising three children and several grandchildren.
“I really thought I’d just be sitting in my condo with my all-white carpet with my feet up, drinking tea,” Patricia said.
But life had other plans.
Patricia’s great niece struggled with issues that left her unable to care for her children, two girls, Jayla and Jadyn, and an infant boy, Josiah. The kids were placed in multiple foster care homes before eventually being returned to their birth mother, who continued to face difficulties. In 2018, when Patricia received a call to pick the girls up from the police station, she knew her life would change forever.
“I ran out of the house with a bologna sandwich and some fruit because I figured they’d be hungry,” she said. “I’ve been taking care of them ever since.” The early traumas began to take a toll on the children, so Patricia turned to Easterseals for help. The organization, which has a longstanding partnership with United Way for Southeastern Michigan, offers on-site mental wellness services to students at eight schools in Oakland County, including Stevenson Elementary, a United Way Community School.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the girls would meet virtually with a therapist. Now, they meet with the therapist in person every Monday to learn new ways to manage their emotions. Jayla, 10, and Jadyn, 9, are thriving with the help of Easterseals, according to Patricia and Stevenson staff.
“They’re really doing much better,” Patricia said. Their five-year-old brother is also in therapy with Easterseals and will start kindergarten at Stevenson in the fall. Throughout May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, organizations and individuals across the country are raising awareness about the importance of mental health. Their efforts include emphasizing the fact that mental health struggles can impact people of all ages.
Easterseals offers mental health programs that support families — from helping expectant parents and youth to addressing the issues adults face. Staffers at Stevenson Elementary see that work as critical to student success.
“We believe that mental health is health, and there shouldn’t be any stigma around seeking out therapy or counselling,” said Stevenson Principal Tonya Hickman.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the need for social/emotional support since the pandemic, and we want our students and staff to know that everyone can benefit from having a neutral person to talk to.”
“We appreciate our partnership with Easterseals and the support they offer to our team.”
In Michigan, nearly 40 percent of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression as of February 2021, and 119,000 children ages 12-17 have depression, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). In 2021, Oakland County allocated $8.5 million in Oakland Together grants to help residents with critical counseling and care. The grants, which range from $50,000 to $500,000, are administered by United Way to nonprofit agencies across the county.
“Mental health services are a basic need that everyone should have access to,” said Dr. Darienne Hudson, president and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “While lack of access was a problem even before the pandemic hit our region, the need has been amplified as we all continue to deal with the effects of COVID-19.””We are proud to once again partner with Oakland County to support the health and wellbeing of our community by facilitating access to this essential service.”
Easterseals, one of 42 Oakland Together grant recipients, is using the funding to hire additional staff for on-site counseling programs and to offer professional development for teachers. The organization is also developing a series of webinars on a range of mental health topics.
“With a trauma informed approach, teachers can begin to look beyond the behavior the child is exhibiting and explore what may be going on at home that’s leading to what they’re experiencing in the classroom,” said Uriel Stephens, director of family services at Easterseals Michigan.
Jadyn and Jayla said they have built a strong relationship with their therapist, and that has helped them function better at school and at home.
“I trust them,” Jayla said, using words she’s come to understand through therapy. “They’ve helped me with anxiety and grief, and stuff like that.”
Since the Easterseals staff began collocating at schools in 2015, they’ve helped more than 500 children. Before offering services, the organization reviews school data to create a tailored approach.
“It’s definitely not a cookie-cutter approach,” Uriel said. In Clarkston, for example, the team developed programs specifically to help kids deal with grief and loss, and another program that focused on supporting teen parents. Following the tragedy in Oxford, where four people were killed and seven people were injured, the team offered immediate crisis response and continues to offer on-site services.
Jayla encourages other students to seek out help if they need it.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said. “You can get your problems fixed and you don’t have to worry.” Easterseals offers free, anonymous online assessments to determine if you or someone you care about should connect with a behavioral health professional. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Oakland County has compiled a comprehensive list of mental health resources for families and individuals.
If you or a loved one need immediate help or are in a crisis, call 1-800-950-NAMI or text “NAMI” to 741741.