Online counseling helping address student mental health crisis in schools

TCHATT portal taking the burden off overwhelmed school counselors, expanding specialized care

SAN ANTONIO - – Three years ago, the weight of the world seemed to fall on Churchill High School senior Ivette Tellez.

“My dad passed away Nov. 28, right after Thanksgiving, and our house actually flooded Jan. 1, so New Year’s. And we were stuck in a hotel for almost six months,” Tellez said.

Consumed by anxiety and depression, she needed someone to talk to.

School counselors were overwhelmed, so she was referred to an online counselor with UT Health’s Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine (TCHATT).

From her hotel room, she began speaking weekly with a counselor Tellez calls a true lifeline.

“My dad was my best friend, and so he was like my go-to person. And then when I found this person, I was like, ‘Where have you been my whole life?’” Tellez said, laughing.

Tellez’s mom, Isela Chamberlain, said, “They were able to help her cope through that and open up again.”

Chamberlain works at LEE High School and sees how stressed kids are.

“This can be done at their pace and time and when they most needed,” she said.

Parents like Chamberlain aren’t the only ones whose students need help.

“We have 550 students here at Northern Hills. We have a counselor and a half. Me, and then we have a counselor here two or three days a week. That is not enough to meet the needs,” said Northern Hills Elementary Counselor Katie Robertson.

It’s the story with schools across Texas and even America — a mental health crisis pinned against depleted school budgets.

“It’s not just getting them happy and getting them back to class. Sometimes, students have ADHD or depression or something more significant. And this is something I can offer for free,” Robertson said.

TCHATT increases the likelihood of families getting their children into more extensive counseling.

“Try to make phone calls and figure out their insurance, and that just stops people a lot of times. And this is a real good way of taking all of that off their plate, getting them into a system that they can begin to understand,” Robertson said.

She sat at her computer and showed KSAT how TCHATT works.

“If I speak to a parent and we determined that it’s the right thing for their child, then what I’ll do is I log in, then I just start adding in information,” Robertson said. “It could be academic issues, it could be anger or violence, it could be anxiety. And very often, it is. I can add documents to it, or I can call them.”

The appointments can be set up in just a couple of days.

KSAT checked with a list of local school districts that confirm they all use TCHATT or online counseling services in some way.

Those districts include the following: North East ISD, Northside ISD, San Antonio ISD, South San ISD, Harlandale ISD, and Somerset ISD.

Robertson also said kids who need extra care can get medication help and be referred to other therapists. A couple of years ago, she referred a special needs student to TCHATT.

“We had a child a couple of years ago who was really struggling. And I said, ‘OK, let me just call and see if that could be helpful to you.’ I know that the family was struggling financially, too. They were able to take her on and help him. And truly, the transformation was incredible,” Robertson said.

The string of referrals also brought Tellez to incredible therapy.

“I did TCHATT online, and then I actually did the Children’s Bereavement Center,” she said.

The tailored counseling helped her express her emotions through art and other hands-on therapy.

“I have it all. I’ve been through it all,” Tellez said, smiling.

Her overall mental health care experience was so transformative that she’s about to go to college to get a degree in psychology.

She wants to help others find the peace and strength that she’s found.


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About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.