New year, same problems? How local mental health experts are helping kids, families

Mental health problems people battled in 2022 may linger in 2023, as perhaps new challenges come to the forefront, experts say.

The World Health Organization reported a roughly 28% increase in major depressive disorders in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People were suffering. People are still suffering,” said Dr. David Rakofsky, a psychologist who is president and founder of the Wellington Counseling Group in Northbrook.

His office has doubled in size since 2017 because of increased demand for mental health services.

The new year may bring other difficulties — such as returning to workplaces, school and seasonal affective disorder.

Rakofsky said struggling married couples often will postpone plans to divorce to spare their children's feelings during the holidays. When the calendar flips, they break the news and fallout ensues.

According to Mental Health America, Illinois ranked 12th among 50 states and the District of Columbia for prevalence of mental health and substance abuse issues, access to mental health care, and adequate insurance, based on 2019 statistics and 15 different measures.

Rachel Tzinberg, board president of Northbrook-based CATCH (Community Action Together for Children's Health), said several partners — including Compass, Family Service Center, Josselyn, PEER Services, Youth Services, the YMCA — help the group support and educate parents about mental health issues to serve children and adolescents.

“We're not therapists, and we always communicate that very clearly. We call on the experts in our community and people have completely stepped up,” Tzinberg said.

CATCH, which works closely with Glenbrook North High School, Northbrook District 28 and throughout Northbrook schools, offers speaker events and peer support groups.

“We found out that one of the ways we could really support the kids is by supporting the parents,” Tzinberg said.

In her experience, enhancing the relationship with a child is more important than hammering away at a problem. Communication and connection are key.

“Focus on what you want the relationship to be instead of how bad it is,” Tzinberg said. “I just found that the more we focused on the problem we kept getting more of the problem. Instead of the opportunity to make resolutions, maybe it's an opportunity to look at what's working or what's not. And then make small changes.”

Family Service Center in Northfield distributes newsletters chock-full of mental health advice and exercises, available by email or on the center's website under “News & Events.”

Co-executive director Renee Dominguez, a licensed clinical psychologist, and Robin Lake, a licensed clinical social worker, recently put out a nine-part series, “Holiday Expectations vs. Holiday Realities.”

They also issued tips for the new year. One is a tool called Mindful Self-Compassion, which Lake said she wishes she “could put into every person's hands.”

Developed by psychologists Kristin Neff and Chris Germer, Mindful Self-Compassion involves three components “that can open the door to change,” according to the center's material.

They include recognizing and accepting one's situation, understanding that it is simply a part of life, and harnessing the ability to “see the good in yourself.”

The center recommends taking small, incremental steps toward accomplishing goals or addressing problems, and celebrating those achievements as they come.

During plateaus, “it's important to remember that the cycle is not an indication of failure or a reason to stop growing, it's just part of the journey,” the center wrote.

Also in Northfield, Erica Hornthal delivers therapy in a different way.

A dancer since she was a little girl, as Hornthal got older she sought a career in which she could help people. Hornthal studied psychology, earned a master's in dance/movement therapy and counseling, and in 2011 founded Chicago Dance Therapy. She's also written a book, “Body Aware.”

“Most of our communication is nonverbal. The challenge is when we experience a mental health concern, or in some cases a crisis, we're often told to talk about it. But in extreme cases many of us can't access the parts of our brain required to talk about it,” Hornthal said.

“So with the therapy that involves body or movement, like dance/movement therapy, we're actually still able to help a person process what they're feeling or express their emotions without relying on verbal language,” she said.

Treatments, either in her studio or remotely, do incorporate speech, but also body language, posture, expressions and gestures. They can be what Hornthal called “micro-movements” or full-body motion to music.

“When you're feeling something particularly strong or overwhelming, don't just bring awareness to what you think, but bring awareness to how your body is moving when you feel the way you feel,” she said. “When you become more aware of how your body shows up in relation to this feeling or thought, you have the power to shift not just your body but what you're thinking.”

She cited the constricted or tense feeling one gets when angry. To combat that, Hornthal recommends daily exercises to “expand” the body, such as stretch breaks, deep breathing, standing, even yawning.

“When we expand our bodies we actually expand our minds,” Hornthal said.

She said Chicago Dance Therapy has served clients from 107 to 3 years old.

The younger set is the focus of Plena Mind Center in Northbrook.

Founded in 2018 by CEO Shannon Goebel and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Firuza Aliyeva, a child and adolescent psychologist, the center focuses on anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, mood disorders, trauma, stress, school avoidance and phobias in clients 6 to 18 years old.

Dealing with emotional reactivity is a key aspect of The Dragonfly Program, which Plena launched in September for children 6 to 10 years old. It's a population that, according to the American Psychological Association, has seen a 24% increase in mental health-related emergency room visits since the COVID-19 pandemic.

It's a full-day program that by a variety of treatment modes aims to, in part, anticipate and correct problematic behaviors, and create strategies families can use to defuse defiance in children without jeopardizing mental or physical health.

Aliyeva provided five tips for the new year for children who have difficulty regulating emotions:

• Stop reassuring them. Chemicals in the brain don't allow anxious children to respond logically.

• Children learn by observation; model healthy coping skills.

• Take deep breaths with the child.

• Figure out solutions together.

• And, empathize.

“A child wants you to know that anxiety is scary,” Aliyeva said.

Tips for reducing stress in 2023

  Erica Hornthal is founder and owner of Chicago Dance Therapy in Northfield. She is a dance/movement therapist and licensed professional counselor. Joe Lewnard/
In 2021, Community Action Together for Children's Health introduced mental health kits to Glenbrook North students. They include materials and information designed to relieve stress. PHOTO COURTESY OF CATCH
Plena Mind Center staff, from left, Lindsay Johnson, Darla Cabrera and Sam Levi work with young clients. Co-founded by Dr. Firuza Aliyeva and Shannon Goebel, the center has full-day intensive therapy and after-school programming focusing on children and adolescents ages 6 to 18. Courtesy of Elana Margolis
  Erica Hornthal is founder and owner of Chicago Dance Therapy in Northfield. She is a dance/movement therapist and licensed professional counselor. Joe Lewnard/
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