July 14, 2017

Catholic Charities offers counseling to those ‘in most critical need’

Jessica McDonald displays some of the costumes that are used for children’s “play therapy” at Catholic Charities in Bloomington on May 31. (Photo by Katie Rutter)

Jessica McDonald displays some of the costumes that are used for children’s “play therapy” at Catholic Charities in Bloomington on May 31. (Photo by Katie Rutter)

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

BLOOMINGTON—A young mother stared into space, clearly preoccupied with her own worries. Her daughter, a girl maybe 8 years old with bright blonde hair and worn‑out pink leggings, wandered among the toys strewn about the waiting room.

This young woman came to Bloomington’s Catholic Charities office seeking help, but the help she wanted was not food, housing or monetary assistance. She needed mental healing for herself, and perhaps her young daughter as well.

“We want to inspire hope in people that they’ll get better, that they’ll overcome their barriers,” said O’Connell Case, a licensed clinical social worker who serves as clinical director of the office where the young mother sought refuge.

Mental Health America estimates that nearly one in five Indiana residents has some sort of mental illness, a number that has risen in recent years. However, access to care, especially for the poor, has plummeted.

Bloomington is no exception. In response to higher health care costs, most private practices in the area either limited the number of Medicaid patients that they would accept or stopped treating them altogether.

“These are the people in most critical need,” said Cheri Bush, who oversees mission advancement for all of archdiocesan Catholic Charities agencies. “These folks that qualify for Medicaid may have multiple issues going on. Maybe they’re underemployed or unemployed. Maybe they’ve faced homelessness, or there is a felony that creates a challenge in getting a job. We’re here to help no matter what.”

Catholic Charities in Bloomington aims to fill the need and make mental health services accessible to all members of the community. The office is located among the city’s low-income housing and accepts clients in need of psychological or counseling services, even if they cannot afford the care.

“If somebody doesn’t have insurance, we work on a sliding fee,” said Case, who estimates that some clients only pay $5 for a session, which may normally cost $100. “We work with people so that paying a fee is not a barrier.”

In the last year, Catholic Charities in Bloomington served 953 people. The staff, which consists of certified therapists trained in the latest mental health methods, firmly believe that helping their clients achieve mental stability is the first step toward overall improvement of quality of life.

“A lack of stability makes it impossible to hold down a job, makes it impossible to be a good parent, makes it impossible to engage in good self-care,” said Kara Baertsch, a licensed mental health counselor who works with adults trying to overcome trauma.

The walls of the agency are painted in calming beiges and blues accented by framed pastel images of landscapes and flowers. Some rooms contain overstuffed sofas, while others are lined with brightly-colored toys and costumes. Far more than just play things, these toys are actually tools to assist Catholic Charities’ youngest clients.

“[Play] is like a second language, so it’s a way to help them process,” said Jessica McDonald, who is in charge of “play therapy” for the agency, a specific method that uses toys and games to identify and treat mental issues in children. “The youngest I have is 3, the oldest is 12.”

Mental health needs for children have also grown exponentially in recent years.

“We’re dealing with a lot more difficult issues. Now we’re dealing with young children who are severely depressed who have thought about killing themselves, who have tried to kill themselves,” said Scott Rolfe, a registered nurse who serves as practice manager at Indiana University Health Southern Indiana Physicians, a network of providers that serve Bloomington and the surrounding counties.

Some of these children are trying to overcome depression, anxiety and mental trauma prompted by situations that would be difficult for an adult to cope with.

“We have students who have parents who are incarcerated, students whose parents have died because of a drug overdose, students whose parents are dealing with addiction,” said Emma Ford, a social worker stationed at Fairview Elementary, which is just a mile away from Catholic Charities in Bloomington.

In order to make mental health services accessible to these young community members, Catholic Charities in Bloomington pioneered a partnership with Fairview several years ago. Three Catholic Charities therapists work at the school and provide counseling sessions for the students during the normal school day.

“This allows our students to have easy access to the service that they most likely would not otherwise get,” Ford said. Ninety percent of the school’s 328 students live at or below poverty level. “Many of our families do not have transportation and sometimes lack finances for public transportation, even the bus.”

Catholic Charities in Bloomington similarly assists students, parents and teachers at St. Vincent de Paul School in Bedford. The agency also partners with the pediatric offices of Indiana University Health Southern Indiana Physicians. A Catholic Charities therapist works alongside the pediatricians, evaluating at-risk patients and providing counseling in four of their offices.

“They’re providing that counseling to the community for people who just can’t afford it any other traditional way,” said Rolfe, who played a key role in kicking off the collaboration with Catholic Charities in Bloomington. Rolfe also emphasized that the Bloomington area needs more mental health services, but acknowledged that less and less practices are willing to provide these services because “behavioral health is not a moneymaker.”

In order to support the services they provide, Catholic Charities in Bloomington hosts regular fundraisers. The organization also applies for local grants and receives funding through the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Still, as the need for services increase, the need for funding increases as well. The office expects to see about 1,500 clients in 2017, up more than 500 from last year.

“There’s just not enough. If I had more money, I would hire more staff to help more people,” Case noted.

“We are in need of more supporters,” Bush added. “I think that the best support is a consistent monthly gift almost like a tithe. That’s really important to keeping our doors open. We are also looking for sponsors, banks and businesses that like to partner with us.”

For the staff at Catholic Charities in Bloomington, however, their work is more than a paycheck. When asked, every therapist speaks of people they have served as if they were family. Some staff members have attended celebrations and theatrical performances to support their former clients. The office consistently hosts “graduation” ceremonies when a child overcomes a difficulty and no longer needs therapy.

“I really feel in my heart that Catholic Charities in Bloomington answers the call of Christ,” Bush said. “It’s our privilege to say, ‘There’s always hope, there’s always a better tomorrow. I’m not going to listen to this story, and be so repulsed by it that I can’t hear anymore. I’m going to stand in the gap with you. You’re not alone.’ ”

(Katie Rutter is a freelance writer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington. For more information on services offered by Catholic Charities Bloomington or for information on how to donate to Catholic Charities Bloomington, visit www.archindy.org/cc/bloomington.)

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