Bouncing Back from Trauma

January 18, 2018


UCAN psychotherapist Yana Melnik works with elementary school students in the North Lawndale community whose lives have been affected by exposure to traumatic situations.

In the United States, more than 1 in 4 children and adolescents experience a significant trauma by adulthood. Research suggests that traumatic events are associated with both poor behavioral health and chronic physical conditions, especially when they occur during childhood.

At Lurie Children's, the Center for Childhood Resilience (CCR) is working to reduce the effects of trauma on elementary and high school students in Illinois. The Center trains educators along with school-based and community agency clinicians to identify affected children and utilize evidence-based strategies to help them heal and become more resilient.

"We often talk about what's in a child's ‘emotional backpack,'" says Colleen Cicchetti, PhD, Executive Director of the CCR. "When kids walk into a classroom, do they believe the world is safe? Do they believe adults are there to help them? If not, we need to change their perceptions about the world around them."

To do this, CCR promotes building safe and supportive school environments for students who have been impacted by trauma. These environments share a common vision aimed at helping students make positive connections with staff and peers by providing the tools they need to feel both physically and emotionally safe.

The CCR was established in 2004 to promote access to mental health services for children and adolescents, especially those living in underserved communities. In 2016 alone, CCR staff trained more than 2,300 teachers, school social workers and school-based community health providers in specific interventions to help these children.

Since 2013, CCR has been training mental health providers in the "Bounce Back" intervention, a skill-building resiliency program. A recent study found that 93 percent of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students who participated in the Bounce Back program experienced a reduction in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

Yana Melnik, LCPC, is a therapist with the CCR-trained community mental health agency UCAN. She uses the Bounce Back program at two Academy of Urban School Leadership CPS elementary schools in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood, which has one of the highest violent crime rates in the city. Melnik teaches students skills to challenge upsetting thoughts, process stressful events and problem-solve issues with other students.

"We may not always have a 180-degree turnaround with a student, but since we instituted the Bounce Back program, I've seen a reduction in anxiety, hyperarousal and hypervigilance in these kids," says Melnik. "They have enhanced social skills and more confidence and resilience, which has enabled them to build relationships with other students."

CCR leaders and Lurie Children's Government Relations team have also been active in advocacy work in both Springfield and on Capitol Hill. They worked closely with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis to help draft a bill they introduced in Congress in March. If passed, the legislation would fund programs that identify and treat children and adolescents in violent neighborhoods who are affected by stress and trauma. It would also expand Medicaid coverage for child trauma services and increase mental health services in schools.

Dr. Cicchetti says that the CCR is committed to reaching out beyond the hospital's walls to improve access to mental health services in a school setting, especially as 70 percent of children who receive these services receive them in school.

"Programs like Bounce Back aim to place children on the path to healthy development," she says. "We want to help them cope better with challenges, manage stress and learn that if something bad happens to them, there are people they can talk to about it."

Philanthropic support for the Center for Childhood Resilience comes from the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation, the Segal Family Foundation, the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, the Polk Bros. Foundation, the Siragusa Family Foundation and the Steans family—Lois M. and Harrison I. Steans, Heather Steans and Leo Smith, Jennifer Steans and James Kastenholz, and Robin Steans and Lenny Gail.

Help expand Bounce Back and other trauma-focused programs. Contact Alisia Eckert at 312.227.7308 or aeckert@luriechildrens.org.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Heroes magazine.