Sahuarita Unified School District Assistant Superintendent Brett Bonner is thrilled clinical psychologists Celeste Bryson, center, and Lutissua Ballard are holding weekly conversations with students about their mental health.

They came. They saw. They heard and then they jumped into action.

Members of the Better Together Coalition sat down with 45 middle school and high school students in November to talk about the challenges they're facing.

Based on what they heard, more than 100 students in both the Sahuarita Unified School District and Continental Elementary School District are already meeting in groups with two clinical psychologists to talk about their struggles on a weekly basis.

The Better Together Southern Arizona Coalition is exploring ways to increase services and bring together community resources to help kids, families and individuals achieve family and economic stability. Members include the Town of Sahuarita, the school districts, area food banks, the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona, the Amado Youth Center and Arizona Complete Health.

Clinical psychologists Lutissua Ballard and Celeste Bryson were among those who met with the students in November. They learned students were dealing with such things as depression, anxiety, parental and peer pressure, academic stress, feelings of inadequacy, grief and loss.

"During this moment, this four or so hours that we had with them, they were really transparent, so much to the point that some were even crying," Bryson said. "They had a moment where they were out of school, they were in an environment where they felt safe and they were able to let go of what was going on with them on the inside."

It not only opened the eyes of the adults in the room, but it also helped the students realize they weren't the only ones dealing with similar issues, she said.

"One of the biggest things that came out of this session is that, 'We don’t want this to stop,' they said to us," Bryson said. "They said 'We need help and we need you all as adults to give us something.'"

Inspired, Bryson and Ballard went to the Sahuarita Unified School District and told assistant superintendent Brett Bonner they wanted to help.

They pitched the idea of holding weekly meetings with groups of students to let them talk about their issues and to share with them ways of coping. For example, drawing and writing are proven ways to help people manage stress.

They also said they wanted to help kids improve their moods and relationships, increase confidence and resolve conflicts.

On Jan. 13, thanks to a $10,000 donation from Freeport-McMoran and plenty of help from Bonner, principals and counselors, the doctors and students began meeting during lunch, enrichment periods and other times deemed appropriate by the various schools' principals.

The program is called Let's Talk Youth Empowerment Groups. 

The cost? Nothing for the students. Five dollars a year for the doctors for the space they use because both doctors work for non-profits. Ballard is affiliated with Shefa Life Counseling Center and Bryson is the president and founder of Thriving.

The Freeport-McMoran donation covered the program's start up costs. The doctors will be pursuing additional funding to keep the program running. The plan is to hold seven-week sessions for as long as possible with an eye toward expanding the number of sessions per school.

Those who participate in the program will most often be referred to the program by teachers, principals and counselors, but the doctors expect parents will start coming as word of the program grows. Hopefully the students themselves will ask to join, too, the doctors said.

Parents must sign a consent form for students to participate. 

The program is a huge boon for the students because the federal government has determined Pima County is a health professional shortage area, an area that is severely lacking in primary care physicians, dentists and mental health professionals, Bryson said.

There are very few mental health providers in the area and, worse yet, those who do exist often don't treat adolescents, Ballard said. Some parents also don't have the financial means or transportation to take their children to Tucson to see providers, either. 

Although they aren't offering the students therapy, by meeting with these students in groups and getting them to open up about their feelings, Ballard said she and Bryson are still helping more children than if they met with them individually.

"The goal is to give them the tools that they need to be able to go back to class or go play basketball or to be able to go home," Bryson said. "We want to give them coping mechanisms so they can be productive."

The doctors are also hoping to provide some relief to those principals and counselors who often find themselves taking time during their busy days to suddenly help a child who is experiencing a crisis, Bonner said.

"When students are dealing with social/emotional issues, we know learning is going to be a challenge," Bonner said. "So if we can address that critical need first and help the social/emotional well-being of the student then learning becomes more attainable and more realistic." 

Some of the students are already receiving treatment outside of school, but others have never before told anyone of their struggles, the doctors said.

One of their biggest goals is to break the stigma that says it's not OK to talk about your mental health, Ballard said.

Just talking in general seems to be a thing of the past, she said.

Ballard said they've discovered that parents and children aren't talking to each other about consequential things anymore because they're too wrapped up in social media, extracurricular activities and television. Dinner table discussions are a thing of the past, she said.

When she lived on the East Coast, Bryson said she was constantly reacting to crises. Now, she is thrilled at the idea of being able to prevent crises, such as teen suicides.

They are bound and determined to find ways to keep funding the program, she said. 

"We are going to chip off the rock from these mountains and we’re going to do the best that we can. We as clinical psychologists are fully invested because it’s in our heart and in our passions to work with these young people," Bryson said. "We’re believing the funding is going to come. We don’t know when. Our heart is in getting this started and to get this done because these students are crying out."

Kim Smith | 520-547-9740

Assistant Editor Kim Smith moved to Arizona from Michigan when she was 16. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism in 1989. She has worked at seven newspapers of varying size in Arizona, Texas and Nevada.