By: Katie Sobiech
About 20% of American children suffer from a diagnosable mental illness each year, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. But this growing epidemic is nothing new. The need surfaced as far back as 1936 in the heart of the Great Depression when kids began manifesting mental and emotional problems.
Because of this growing need, Child Guidance Centers (CGC), were established across the nation in the 1920’s and in Cleveland and Columbus in the 1930’s. Realizing a need for a center in Akron, those on the Board of CGC developed The Child Guidance Association of Akron in 1939, which rests downtown on Locust Street.
Originally two different organizations, Child Guidance merged with Family Solutions on July 1, 2003, becoming– Child Guidance and Family Solutions (CGAFS).
They now counsel, educate and support about 4,000 children and 1,000 adults a year who have faced trauma, grief, abuse, neglect and other behavioral and health challenges. They are one of the largest behavioral healthcare agencies in Summit County, serving in seven different locations.
What They Do
About fifty percent of children with mental illness are left untreated and suffer. Their goal is to bring that percentage down.
The scope of what this organization does is hard to define because of the fact that they serve every need of children and families that they can; including anything from counseling to making sure that they have food in their stomachs. This makes their logo, “Weaving Together the Fabric of Family” come to life, as they connect families with the resources they need.
The children and adolescents that they see come in with a variety of different issues; anything from bipolar disorder to anger issues. The majority struggle with adjustment disorders due to the break up of their family or being put into foster care. About 300 of the kids they see each year are under the care of Children’s Services.
“There’s so much in a young child or teen’s life that they aren’t mature enough to know how to handle,” Elaine Harlin, President of CGFS explained. “When they are put in a home where they don’t know anyone it is extremely disruptive and painful.”
Phone calls come in frequently from concerned parents with questions about their child’s behavior.
Harlin explained that there are certain signs or “red flags” that parents can look for to detect whether or not their child is dealing with mental illness. These include sudden change in behavior, withdrawing, becoming oppositional or angry for no apparent reason, crying over things more easily, or getting lower grades in school.
When a worried parent calls in, staff connects them with psychiatrists and psychologists to put together an entire evaluation on the child. They find that some of the children have chemical imbalances, which Harlin describes as a “disease of the brain”.
“Some people can cope with all sorts of things much easier than others that don’t know how to cope,” she said.
And so they teach them to cope by providing them with skills they can use in their everyday lives.
Connecting People with Resources
Therapists at CGFS are often the ones who help the children get the resources that they need. Sometimes they come across teens who have been kicked out of their apartment or house and have nowhere to go – so they connect them with Akron Metropolitan Housing or some other organization that provides shelter.
Other times they connect kids with a different school because of special needs that they have, and often provide them with food and clothing.
“Believe it or not, some families are living out of their cars,” Harlin said, “I’ve sat in class before and heard the kids talking about the snacks (that we give); the cheese sticks and grapes, because they go home and there might be bologna in the refrigerator and nothing else.”
She went on to say, “My heart goes out to these families because they are trying to take care of a number one priority, and for most of them it is having a roof over their head and something on their back.”
One of the most important aspects of what they do is to working with the kids to explore and express their feelings instead of bottling everything inside, which leads to outbursts of anger.
They also make sure to get the kids together in groups with others who are facing the same types of issues. By doing this, “They aren’t feeling isolated and alone in their problems,” Harlin explained.
There are a number of anger management groups where they have the kids identify the root of what is causing their anger.
There are also groups for those with Attention Deficit Disorder, anxiety, and who have been victims of sexual abuse, as well as prevention groups such as “Incredible Years”. Incredible Years is for pre-school age kids that are starting to act out by hitting, biting and screaming. The parents are involved and taught how they can change bad behavior through positive reinforcement.
Kids Club in the summer encourages and teaches kids about various community responsibilities; getting them involved in activities like planting a community garden and giving the vegetables away to those in need.
Making a Difference
In the past 70 years CGFS has touched 44,000 kids’ lives in some way.
Whenever they set up their booth at different events, such as health fairs, they have adults who still thank them. They will say things such as “I came to you when I was 12 years old and it really made a difference in my life.”
“When you hear those things, those are all successes,” Harlin smiled.
One teen who had been put into foster home after foster home found healing by meeting with one of their therapists. It helped her so much that she ended up graduating high school and is now stable and has a job. To this day she still visits and refers others who are troubled to CGFS.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental illness you can contact Child Guidance and Family Solutions at (330) 762-0591 or go to their website: http://www.cgfs.org to find a Center closest to you.