More than 620 San Antonians have received free counseling services since 2023 in a new offering meant to combat stigmas surrounding mental health treatment at the YMCA of Greater San Antonio.

Eight counselors serve children ages 12 to 19, plus seniors, veterans and parents across eight YMCA locations — though unlimited counseling is also available to anyone who needs it.

Counseling services started in May of 2023, after a $1.3 million, 2-year ARPA grant the YMCA received to address mental health issues among teens. In January 2024, funding from Humana expanded those services to seniors and veterans.

San Antonio is the first YMCA in Texas to offer counseling services.

Known for providing opportunities for physical fitness, the YMCA also offers counseling in other states like California, since mental health is now the second-highest ranking community need the organization has identified.

When ARPA funding runs out in 2025, and Humana funding runs out in 2026, the YMCA wants to continue its counseling services, but to do that the counseling department is working to be self-sustainable.

Counseling services are free for anyone who fits the population the grants aim to reach, including children ages 12 to 19, seniors, veterans and parents. But adult, non-veteran patients ages 20 to 64 who make less than $75,000 a year can get counseling services at up to a 70% discount. YMCA memberships aren't required for counseling services.

Eight counselors each conduct four to six sessions a day in rotating YMCA locations. Each month, the YMCA provides 275 counseling sessions, 100 of which are individual sessions.

Youth counseling is available at the Westside Family YMCA, at the Harvey E. Najim Family YMCA on the South Side, the Y Living Center also on the South Side, the Davis-Scott Family YMCA one the East Side, and the Walzem Family YMCA on the Northeast Side.

Seniors and veterans can get counseling services at all of the same locations that offer youth counseling, as well as the O.P. Schnabel Park, Thousand Oaks and Schertz Family YMCAs.

Kristine Gusman, counseling services director for the YMCA said the West Side Family YMCA at 2900 Ruiz Street is the busiest location.

During the interview, Gusman sat in one of the counseling rooms, filled with positive words on posters, plus books, art, two couches and warm lamps.

“I no longer have to say I’m going to a counseling office. I’m going to the Y,” Gusman said.

Counseling at the YMCA

Due to the creation of the program and its funding to reach more communities, six more people were hired in addition to the first two staffers to provide counseling services for more teens, veterans and seniors at the YMCA locations.

Each person is either a licensed counselor or will be licensed soon, according to Gusman. The group includes two male counselors, a Spanish-speaking counselor, veterans and seniors.

“We know that the stigma is so [big] in our minority communities, we wanted to be sure all of us look like the communities we serve for a reason, so they can see themselves and be more comfortable with us,” said Gusman.

Individual, group, couples and family counseling services are available. For children under 18, parental consent is required for one-on-one counseling, and parents can join a session if the child consents.

Counseling appointments are available weekdays from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

There is no wait list for a counseling appointment and patients are usually seen within the same week, Gusman said. People in need of counseling are matched with a counselor that fits their needs, for example, a veteran would get a counselor who is also a veteran.

Youth mental health

Army veteran and mental health counselor Tralishé Matthews-Truss said seniors and youth age 14 to 18 are visiting for counseling the most.

Socioeconomics and self-esteem are issues among younger people, Matthews-Truss said, with social media playing a role. Those issues are then combined with what’s going on at home, and it affects the young people at school and in their self-esteem.

“A lot of our youth are missing the support they need to move forward in life,” she said.

Social anxiety and not knowing how to relate and communicate with others are also common issues in San Antonio youth seeking counseling services, Gusman said.

Leaving those issues unaddressed bleeds into relationships, Matthews-Truss said, “Now here comes the anger, here comes the anxiety; I don't know how to function around things that trigger me. That starts showing up in relationships with friends, in our kids, in our decisions.”

Some counselors at the YMCA are working with a local club of basketball players who have had a few outbursts on the court, Gusman said. They talk about self-awareness, confidence and identifying the root of emotions.

Through counseling, parents also learn that they don't always know how to support their children.

“They've never asked, ‘Do you need pats on your back, or do I need to tell you every day that you're great and you're wonderful?' Youth aren't getting what they need, and a lot of times, the parent doesn't understand that,” she said.

“A lot of the times, parents are like, ‘You've got a roof over your head and food on your plate. Aren't I doing enough?' It's like, ‘No, I also need hugs.'”

Senior, veteran services

In seniors, the biggest issue is loneliness and grief, Matthews-Truss said.

“A lot of times it's loss of their significant other or their kids have their own families, so they're out there trying to figure this out on their own, and loneliness is a huge part,” Gusman said.

Seniors frequently visit the Walzem location, she said. After counseling, they don't want to leave and often end up hanging around with other seniors and participating in activities, Gusman said. At the Schertz campus, seniors go on trips together to create bonds, she said.

“I want people to know that it's OK to get counseling. It doesn't matter what your religion is, what your ethnic background is. Counseling is for everyone,” Matthews-Truss said.

Veterans are starting to come into counseling, sometimes with PTSD and anxiety, and face similar issues to the senior community, including loneliness, she said.

Patients seeking psychiatric or behavioral health services are referred to sliding or no-fee scale programs in San Antonio, like the Center for Health Care Services, UT Health San Antonio, and the Behavioral Health Center.

The counseling team also organizes support groups, workshops and seminars to help people cope and learn about mental health.

Raquel Torres is the ISF FORUM's breaking news reporter. A 2020 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University, her work has been recognized by the Texas Managing Editors. She previously worked...