Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) has long been stepping up to the challenge of supporting kids’ mental health in and out of school. And now, thanks to the organization’s partnership with the Endeavor Health Community Investment Fund (CIF), the nonprofit expanded its work with one Chicago school, Budlong Elementary, located just down the street from Swedish Hospital, part of the NS-EEH health system.

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Learn more about LSSI’s Step-Up program and the NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health Community Investment Fund partnership.

LSSI’s innovative Step-Up School-Based Counseling Program offers students one-on-one counseling, as well as drop-in group sessions for parents and teachers. Step-Up emerged from LSSI’s crisis services and has been slowly gaining ground in Illinois schools over the past nine years. The program works with an onsite advisory group consisting of parents, teachers and others to help inform and address the school community’s most pressing mental wellness needs. LSSI is one of the largest social services providers in the state.

Fewer than 40% of elementary students have access to mental health treatment in their schools, according to the National Center for Education. With the rise of social media use and the lingering effects of COVID-19 lockdowns, more schools have been offering these services, though budget and resource constraints have been challenging.

“We were getting calls from the same schools about the same students pretty frequently,” said Selma Cehic, LSSI’s director of child and adolescent mental health services. “And what one staffer wanted to do was to embed a clinician to provide that support on-site to minimize these crisis situations.”

LSSI, through the Endeavor Health CIF funding, has brought this program to life at Budlong Elementary. In 2023, the CIF awarded $4 million to local partners to create or expand programming that promotes overall community health and wellbeing, health equity and economic security in ways that emphasize community health needs.

After being selected as a CIF partner, LSSI was able to hire school clinician Kantha Swaminathan to work fulltime at Budlong Elementary this year. She has already seen the impact of her work. “When students come into sessions, they feel relieved that they can vent it all out. They're not holding back all those emotions. Because at their homes, they may not always have an environment where they can express how they feel,” she said.

Swaminathan is committed to helping reduce any stigma surrounding mental health, explaining she works hard to make students and their families get comfortable with the idea of therapy. “Opening parents up to this service, talking to them more about psychoeducating: Why it's important and why it's beneficial for your child,” is key, she said. “Because a lot of times they don't really think it's an issue.”

Swaminathan describes how she personally grew up in an environment that did not accept counseling, and knows firsthand what some students have to go through to get the care they need.

Counselors at Budlong Elementary praise LSSI’s Step-Up program for the support it offers educators and administrators, who can focus on teaching kids. “Ever since LSSI has come into the building, that's freed up my time for the whole school,” said Budlong School Counselor Kathryn Dingle. “And it's had a tremendous effect on a small population of students that really need that intensive support.”

Dingle explains that offering therapy in public schools helps eliminate barriers to care and helps parents become more willing to let their kids participate. The program has been well received since its launch in September. “A lot of parents didn't know that it was something that could help their student,” said Dingle. “And then they see the results.”