In a small, windowless room at the University of Kansas Child and Family Services Clinic, Julie Boydston put on a few sock puppets and explained that they’re more than just toys.
Like the dollhouse and costumes in the room, the puppets are tools that help student counselors get children with behavioral and mental health problems to open up.
“They can’t talk to you about their feelings,” Boydston explains. “But maybe they can say what ‘Mr. Duck’ thinks or ‘the frog is sad’ and why is he sad.”
The clinic provides counseling services to children and their families on a sliding scale based on income — no insurance necessary.
Boydston, a clinical psychologist, has been involved in the clinic for more than 10 years, as an adjunct professor and supervisor. But this year she was given a new role as the clinic’s director and charged with increasing outreach to expand the clinic’s role serving families throughout northeast Kansas and sometimes beyond.
Ric Steele, the director of KU’s clinical child psychology program, says before Boydston’s position was added, faculty members served as clinic directors in addition to their other duties.
“So with this move we’ve got someone who’s dedicated to really expanding the services and to think about how we can really address the needs of this part of the state,” Steele says. “This was a long time coming, and it represents a real opportunity to provide better services for people and enhance our training.”
Steele’s department also added two faculty members this year, including one who specializes in autism. Their presence and research will help the student counselors in the clinic serve more people more effectively, he says.
The counselors — all graduate students — had 1,793 appointments in the fiscal year that ended in July, a 30 percent increase from 1,377 the year before.
The number of clients seen rose from 397 to 461.
“I would say (demand) continues to grow,” Boydston says. “There’s a high need.”
Steele says there are multiple reasons for the increase.
One is that awareness of childhood behavioral and mental health issues has grown substantially in the last decade, especially when it comes to autism spectrum conditions.
While more families are seeking services, funding for community mental health centers, which are the only providers in some areas, has remained static or even been cut in recent years.
The community mental health center funding cuts also have reduced job opportunities for the program’s graduates.
“I can think of two or three community mental health centers that are down to really kind of bare bones in terms of the number of doctoral-level providers,” Steele says. “Until that turns around, that’s an issue.”
But Steele says “a surprising number” still opt to stay in Kansas, considering that many students come to the program from other states.
There are 19 student counselors in the program this year, and six more who just started the program will be able to provide counseling at the end of this semester or beginning of the next.
Boydston says that’s about average the last few years, so physical space constraints — the program has seven counseling rooms — are becoming a limitation, especially during the evening hours when more families prefer to make appointments.
But the program’s public role continues to grow. The clinic recently hosted its first Kids Behavioral Wellness Fair at the Lawrence Public Library.
“We really do kind of fill a need,” Steele says.
Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @andymarso