Brandon Lopez-Pereira struggled with remote learning last year. The Norris High School junior felt disconnected from his fellow students. “I was kind of in, I mean, a dark place,” Lopez-Pereira said.
The director of an after-school program suggested that Project Harmony’s Connections program might be able to help. After a recommendation, Lopez-Pereira signed up for an eight-week group therapy session focused on expressive art, where he quickly found a sense of community.
“I felt very confident and comfortable around everyone,” he said. “We all know this is a safe space and we can trust each other.”
Project Harmony is known for its efforts to end the cycle of child abuse and neglect. But the nonprofit also works proactively to meet the mental health needs of young people through its Connections program.
“We connect children and families to appropriate mental health services,” said Jordan Grieser, director of Connections. “We have contracts with therapists in the Omaha area who have evidence-based practices and experience working with children and families.”
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Brandon’s sessions were facilitated by Betsy Funk, Certified Expressive Arts Therapist. Funk said using art can reduce the stigma of therapy and make students excited about the experience.
“Art is a good connector,” Funk said. “It’s kind of a natural language for people.”
It came naturally for Brandon, who is graduating this month and plans to study acting at Columbia College in Chicago.
“It’s really cool to see the creative side of other people,” he said of the Connections program. “It made me feel like I could be myself.”
Connections is open to children who have been through a recent stressful event and could use some extra support to deal with their feelings, regardless of their reaction.
“We’re much more likely to seek help with our children when we see real behavioral issues for children — both internal and external,” Grieser said. “But the internal can be just as worrying. You can have a straight student who doesn’t cause any trouble in class and really struggles.
By working in groups, students learn to form bonds with their peers and they can take these friendships home with them after the sessions are over.
“They’ve already created this supportive relationship,” Grieser said. “Children learn to trust each other and share with each other.”
In Brandon’s case, the students formed a group chat to stay in touch.
“Of course, we were texting each other all the time, and it was really nice,” he said. “It made the experience more comforting because I felt, during that time, that we were still so vulnerable.”
Referrals to Connections increased nearly 66% through March, and Project Harmony more than doubled the use of Groups. Grieser said she expects to end the school year with nearly 2,000 referrals, a few hundred more than before COVID-19.
When the program started in 2015, a major challenge was to tackle the stigma associated with mental health treatment. But that has changed since the start of the pandemic.
“We’ve all become much more comfortable talking about our physical health during COVID, and we’ve also become more comfortable talking about mental health,” Grieser said. “So I don’t expect our recommendations to go down over the next two years.”
Connections will continue to emphasize the use of groups, while adding more providers. The program has about 40 groups that meet in schools and work continues through the summer months, including training in a new therapeutic model.
“We see group models as a great way to meet the need we see,” Grieser said.
Anxiety and difficulties with social interactions are the main issues seen in young people right now, Funk said, not surprisingly amid the pandemic.
Dealing with family difficulties is also common.
“There’s a lot of turmoil at home with each of the kids in their own families,” Funk said. “The group gives them the opportunity to have a safe place to talk about some of these things.”
The program is aimed at students from elementary to high school and is aimed at all members of the child’s family. Financial assistance is offered to people without insurance. Connections currently operates in Omaha, Millard, Bellevue and Papillion La Vista schools.
Families interested in learning more about Connections can visit projectharmony.com or speak to their child’s school about a recommendation.