Expanding Access to Combat the Mental Health Crisis: How the Family Institute Is Bridging the Gap

One out of every eight people live with a mental health disorder. Many of them cannot receive the care they need due to the shortage of mental health providers. 

In Illinois, there are only 13.8 behavioral health care providers for every 10,000 residents; this means 4.8 million Illinois residents live in a mental health shortage area. For those living in rural areas, including indigenous populations and people of color, mental health care access is even more challenging to find.

At The Family Institute at Northwestern University, we are tirelessly dedicated to ensuring that everyone has access to the support they need. We believe in whole health and recognize that attending to your mental and behavioral health is just as important as attending to your physical health.  

As one of the nation’s leading relationship-based behavioral health care organizations, The Family Institute is committed to its mission of strengthening and healing children and adolescents, couples, families, and individuals from all walks of life. We strive to make meaningful changes in people’s lives through a comprehensive approach that combines therapy, education, and research.

How The Family Institute Is Expanding Access

Expanding access to mental health services is critical in solving the current mental health crisis. The Family Institute is working to increase support for the mental health needs of our community through our growing clinical practice of more than 115 therapists who provide nearly 6,000 people with therapy services. 

Additionally, to further support the unique needs of our community, we have added three new specialized services, including:

  • Adult Trauma: supporting individuals who have experienced trauma; 
  • Emerging Adults: supporting the navigation of  the unique challenges of early adulthood and 
  • Sexuality: helping individuals and couples work through the personal and complex aspects of sexuality and intimacy

Therapists at The Family Institute work closely with their clients to develop a plan to support their unique needs and goals. 

“We love our therapist.  He gives realistic coping skills and tools for communication.  We also love that he provides positive feedback as well as providing opportunities for us to work on our relationships!” said a grateful clinical practice client.

The Family Institute strives to eliminate barriers to seeking help. To support our clients, we recently launched our online scheduling platform, making it more convenient for them to book therapy sessions. 

Making Therapy Services Accessible for All

The Family Institute is also committed to making therapy accessible to all.  The Bette D. Harris Family and Child Clinic provides free individual, family, and couple therapy services to those who qualify.  Our clinic is staffed by therapists-in-training, who are educated and work with highly trained, licensed therapists to offer a safe space where people from all walks of life can receive the care they need. 

“Making affordable mental health care available for low-income individuals and families has made a huge difference in my life and in the life of the woman who recommended me to The Family Institute. Thank you so, so much. Please don’t ever give up making this option available to the community.,” said a grateful clinic client.  

Photo courtesy of The Family Institute at Northwestern University
Photo courtesy of The Family Institute at Northwestern University

Clients seek help in our clinic for a range of concerns, including anxiety, depression, couple distress, communication problems, and couple conflict. Last year alone, we provided therapy care to more than 1,200 people throughout Evanston and 52 zip codes in Chicago at no cost. Rogers Park, Lakeview, Logan Square/Bucktown, Uptown and West Ridge/West Rogers Park are among the top five neighborhoods in Chicago that visit our Clinic. 

Within our clinic, we offer two additional community-based programs for more specialized needs. Project Strengthen, initiated in 2017 through a grant from the Harris Family Foundation, continues to be a beacon of hope for individuals and families who struggle with complex mental health issues alongside socio-economic hardships. Most families served by Project Strengthen are below the poverty level, with nearly 80% facing high risk for suicidal and/or homicidal thoughts and extreme violence.

The Community Program at the Bette D. Harris Family & Child Clinic continues to thrive by fostering partnerships with local organizations and schools, ensuring that therapy services are tailored to the specific needs of the Evanston community. Our dedicated community supervisors and therapists-in-training maintain regular, in-person contact with these organizations, strengthening existing ties while establishing new connections. Behavioral health services in the Community Program are often provided in clients’ homes, classrooms, or other non-traditional therapy settings.

Growing the Mental Health Workforce

Through two master’s-level programs, The Family Institute is working to build a pipeline of highly trained and qualified mental health clinicians. More than 200 candidates earn a degree in Counseling or Marriage and Family Therapy from The Family Institute each year. Currently, our education programs serve over 1,000 active graduate students across our on-campus and online programs. 

Our students, known as therapists-in-training, have a unique opportunity to work under the supervision of licensed clinicians to staff our Bette D. Harris Family and Child Clinic. This experience allows them to receive a world-class education and gain real-world experience while making an incredible impact on the community and themselves. 

Lindsey Olvera is a first-year counseling student planning to graduate in 2025. Raised by her grandparents, who immigrated from Cuba, Olvera has seen the firsthand impact of the trauma her grandparents experienced leaving a country by force and wants to help other families end the cycle of generational trauma.

“From a young age, I have always had a passion for people. I saw firsthand the effects that traumatic experiences can have on generations to come,” she said. “The way that dear family members have struggled with and overcome their own traumas is what has inspired me to become a counselor… [I am] a Cuban American and someone who is passionate about working with minority and underserved populations as a way to give back to my own community,” 

Gaining this invaluable hands-on experience has helped our students prepare to enter the workforce immediately—an average of 87% of our graduates secure a job within one month of graduation.

Research Is At The Heart Of What The Family Institute Does

Research plays a robust and integral role at The Family Institute. The innovative work of our researchers, scholars, clinicians, and students informs and strengthens our practice and the education of the next generation of counselors and marriage and family therapists. 

Logo courtesy of The Family Institute at Northwestern University

Our research team has expertise and passion for making a difference in Chicago’s public health landscape and beyond; its work has been accepted across several platforms, including symposia, book chapters, and encyclopedias. 

“The Family Institute conducts community-based intervention research that positively impacts families from all walks of life. Our team aims to become known for groundbreaking translational science that improves the lives of not just our clients but Chicagoans, Americans, and perhaps one day beyond,” states Erika Lawrence, Ph.D., Director of Translational Science. 

Partnering with community agencies is a top priority at The Family Institute. Establishing trust and building strong, academic-community partnerships is a lengthy and essential process before community-based collaborative research can begin in earnest. We are especially proud of our team’s dedicated efforts in FY23, as seven new partnerships with community agencies were successfully developed.

These partnerships include:

Our community partnerships are a testament to our ongoing commitment to making a positive difference in our local community and beyond.

How the Family Institute Can Help

We want to remind our community that it is never too soon or too late to prioritize mental health and that we are here to help. If you or someone you know needs support, we invite you to visit our Get Started Page to book an appointment online within our clinical practice. We accept BlueCross Blue Shield of Illinois insurance or self-pay/out-of-network benefits. 

For those needing our free Clinic services, appointments are generally available in less than 24-48 hours. We invite you to contact us at 847-733-4300 to see if you qualify and to make an appointment. 

Please visit our website at family-institute.org for additional information and resources. 

How to Help:

For more than 50 years, The Family Institute at Northwestern University has been at the forefront of mental health services and research. Donating to the Family Institute helps support mental healthcare for all. Your gift allows The Family Institute to serve the needs of all families, regardless of their ability to pay. Your contribution helps establishes an incubator for research and education, connecting science with practice as researchers, educators and therapists collaborate with clients. Your generosity creates change for children, adults, couples, families, and our community. 

This post was submitted by The Family Institute as part of our “You Said It” program.” Your voice, ideas and engagement are important to help us accomplish our mission. We encourage you to share your stories by submitting a “You Said It,” which could earn your nonprofit a $1,000 grant.

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