School-Based Counseling Gives Students a "Step Up"

Depression, anxiety, family problems, peer pressure... Karah Kohler, Director of Children’s Mental Health Programs at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), recites a long list of issues children and teens give as reasons for mental health counseling. These issues—and a lack of timely interventions to help—inspired Kohler and her team to create the Step-Up School-Based Counseling Program four years ago.

Working in collaboration with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the program has grown from being in six schools at its start to 20 as of this school year. Last year, the Step-Up Program served 230 youth between the ages of 5 and 19 at CPS elementary and high schools.

"Step-Up School-Based Counseling started out as a need in our community," said Kohler. "The children in our care were forced to access crisis services. So we looked internally and asked, 'How can we serve these kids better before they hit the point of crisis?' When your kid is experiencing depression or anxiety, you can't wait six to eight months to get them services."

The strengths of the program are that it reaches children and teens before their mental health needs reach a crisis stage. And because the counselors are embedded in the schools, students can conveniently see their counselor when the need arises. That students can access care convenient to them in their community is a strong tenet of LSSI’s whole-person care. This approach looks at not just one symptom or issue, but considers a whole host of influences in each client's life.

"The most fulfilling thing for me is being able to offer the services that the students need without the barriers there," said Jackie Bobinski, a clinical counselor and case worker in the program who is based out of Taft High School in Chicago. "Until you can get to the root of the problem and get the family involved, and get the family healthy, the [student] can take it upon themselves and take initiative and get the help they need."