25 Investigates: School-based program helps kids with mental health struggles, needs more resources

A school-based program is helping students, who are struggling with mental health, by making trained staff available to them throughout the entire school day and beyond.

The C.A.R.E.S. Club is a program through UMass Memorial Health’s Community Healthlink (CHL). C.A.R.E.S. stands for ‘Create, Achieve, Respect, Elevate, Succeed.’

Now in its’ third year, the C.A.R.E.S. Club is in three schools in central Massachusetts through CHL.

“So, we have a staff at the schools embedded in the school for the entire school day, for the entire school week,” said Lori Simkowitz-Lavigne, a licensed mental health counselor and vice president of the Community Healthlink. She oversees the C.A.R.E.S Club.

Simkowitz-Lavigne says staffers, called case managers, are available to students in the program all day, even during school vacations and summer break in a “wrap-around” the student approach.

“To try to catch youth, but before they develop serious mental health challenges, truancy engaging in risky behaviors and using substances,” said Simkowitz-Lavigne.

Though it began the year before the pandemic, the need now is greater than ever.

Students in Need

Spencer mom, Sarah Taylor, says her son Jordan was heading down the wrong path. They moved to Spencer from Framingham and she says he was having a hard time adjusting to a new school and new friends. And then, the pandemic hit.

“It was more than just remote learning. They had the fear of the pandemic, the social distancing, and no social interaction,” Taylor told anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh.

14-year-old Jordan Gomez says he felt like he was stuck in a cycle he couldn’t break.

“It was bad. Like, I was always doing bad things. I was like, always getting in trouble,” Gomez said. “I just didn’t really care at all.”

Gomez says he was always angry and acting out. His grades were suffering and so was he.

Taylor recalls there was moment they knew something had to change.

“He got in trouble with the law,” Taylor said.

She says police caught Gomez and a friend breaking into an abandoned school.

“We had to sit somewhere on like the curb. And, they made us call our parents,” Gomez said.

“Speaking to the pediatrician and everything that I was trying to do at home, positive reinforcement, discipline, and nothing was working,” Taylor said.

That’s when Gomez’s school, Knox Trail Middle School in Spencer told his family about the C.A.R.E.S. Club.

At first both were reluctant to try it out, but hey say they quickly saw the benefits.

Gomez says his case manager helped him talk to his teachers when he was upset. He participated in group meetings with other students, a community garden, layers of support that helped him realize he wasn’t alone. Other kids were struggling too.

“It felt great, like reassuring that like, I’m not the only one,” Gomez said.

“He started taking responsibility for his actions and knowing that the first step is admitting what you did and trying to find a solution for it,” Taylor said.

The Pandemic Impact

Simkowitz-Lavigne says the pandemic has deeply affected youth mental health. Post-remote learning kids are struggling with more anxiety, she says, and more severe cases of it. The need for services to help kids continues to grow. And, as 25 Investigates has documented the need currently outweighs available resources.

The C.A.R.E.S. Club is having success. Simkowitz-Lavigne says, in its first three years, 50% of those youth they’re serving are getting better. Another 30% is seeing decrease in severity of their struggles.

As of now, the C.A.R.E.S Club is three schools in central Massachusetts, one in Spencer, Worcester and Leominster. The program can help 30 kids per school, per year. The hurdle to expanding is limited staff.

“How frustrating is it knowing that there are so many more kids that need help, that you only have so many people to help them,” Kavanaugh asked.

“It is extremely frustrating to hear the demand, to see the demand that’s out there, and to not have people to do it,” said Simkowitz-Lavigne.

Simkowitz-Lavigne believes the state needs to do more to recruit people into the field of mental health.

“How are we informing the workforce that is coming up about these types of programs,” she said. “And how are we supporting them once they’re in these opportunities.”

Opportunities to help kids like Jordan Gomez.

“There’s someone to talk to you someone that’s on your side that you can call whenever,” said Gomez.

“To get more resources, like C.A.R.E.S. into schools, I think could be beneficial for not only the child, but also the parent, because it’s a family thing,” said Taylor.

The C.A.R.E.S Club program is funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Addiction Services. CHL says it plans to expand the program to other interested schools as more funding becomes available.

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