Dreaming Big About Mental Health: A Q&A with Cynthia Cabral

by | Oct 10, 2022 | 0 comments

It is no secret that the past several years have had a negative effect on mental health across New York City—with black and brown communities bearing the burden of these effects at a disproportionate rate to white, affluent communities.

That’s why DREAM sees mental health support for its students and families as critical to the success of our Grow the Whole Child model—an underlying, targeted intervention to help our students reach their full potential and fulfill their vision of success.

“There’s a mental health crisis in our country, and, historically, black and brown communities have been under-resourced with mental health supports,” said DREAM’s Managing Director of Programs Kalila Hoggard. “There are significant gaps in resources—like long waitlists and limited providers—in our East Harlem and South Bronx communities. We are leveraging mental health supports within our model to provide greater, more tailored assistance to our students.”

To further embed mental health services within our schools and programming, DREAM hired Cynthia Cabral, a licensed clinical psychologist, as the Network Director of Mental Health, a new role focused on coordinating the work of the mental health providers already positioned at all of DREAM’s school sites. Ahead of World Mental Health Day, DREAM sat down with Cabral to learn more about the strides made so far.

DREAM: Can you discuss a little bit about your background and previous work?
Cynthia Cabral: I always had a strong interest in schools as an alternative model of service delivery. In graduate school, a lot of my training focused on mental health services in the school setting, and then my first job was in a school-based health center in the Bronx working with children and families who experienced trauma. I took a break a few years ago to work at Hunter College targeting at-risk queer youth to decrease their risky sexual behavior. And, most recently, I was the director of a college counseling center.

DREAM: Since you started in April, what has your work at DREAM included?
CC: The focus of my role is supporting students and families, and ensuring that the mental health services we’re providing are the highest quality available.

My typical day focuses on clinical supervision of members of the mental health team. I review any outstanding paperwork—the case reports on each student to track their progress. And then the other part is talking about our kids—what are they doing, what’s going on, providing guidance and expertise. The thing I’m really focused on right now is that we have a lot of high-need students. I observe them directly, rather than getting a second-hand report, and help devise what adjustments we need to make to ensure they are successful in school.

I also provide support to DREAM’s Youth Development Specialists who are running social-emotional skills groups, and discuss how those groups are going, give guidance if or when a student is stuck, make a disclosure, and make sure each Youth Development Specialist knows what to do. I collaborate very closely with Kristine Rigley, DREAM’s Network Director of Special Education, and our Data Team.

“Because DREAM has developed the Grow the Whole Child model, we are quickly recognizing how important mental health is to our students’ development and long-term personal and professional success.”

Cynthia Cabral, DREAM Network Director of Mental Health

DREAM: In your own words, why has mental health become such a focus for DREAM?
CC: Because DREAM has developed the Grow the Whole Child model, we are quickly recognizing how important mental health is to our students’ development and long-term personal and professional success. The mental health landscape isn’t where it was 20 years ago. There’s an increased awareness of the impact mental health has on a child and on a person’s life. Even young people are seeing things on social media and sharing them, and they’re no longer afraid to say that they’re struggling. They want to get better and they want to succeed. That dovetails with the fact that, as a society, we have been through so much in the past few years.

DREAM: How is DREAM responding to the mental health concerns exacerbated by the pandemic?
CC: I think the most important thing is having that trauma-focused lens when thinking of students and student behaviors. That hasn’t gone away just because we are unmasked in school. There are repercussions of COVID that students are going to feel for some time, and depending on their age when COVID happened, there were huge disruptions to students’ learning and SEL development.

DREAM: How is DREAM tracking/evaluating mental health?
CC: Even before I arrived, mental health data was something the Data Team had worked on. As a school network, we are accountable to the DOE to track notes around mandated services, but there wasn’t a simple, effective way to ensure that mental health providers were completing those notes with fidelity. The Data Team created a dashboard to track whether note taking is on target for each student. We use this tool regularly, and it also gets us thinking through how we track progress—can we show that students are making progress from when they began counseling till now? We have to build the systems, but I also really want us to think through what we’re doing in counseling, creating tangible goals that respond to the students’ struggles.

DREAM: How is DREAM combating the stigma that exists around talking about mental health issues?
CC: The Family and Community Engagement (FACE) Team has done some of that work in their Family Cafes on mental health topics, and DREAM’s SEL structure helps to further that conversation. In my role, I’d like to start to have some of those conversations directly with families. What is the stigma? What are the concerns? At times there is a resistance to outside counseling, but I’d like to have a different conversation before we get to that point, so that we can do some psycho-education work in order to make those conversations look different.

DREAM: Are there any progress areas you’ve seen so far?
CC: We have made some progress for sure. One thing that has been shored up substantially is the onboarding process for mental health providers and setting expectations for the department. We hired four new providers over the summer and were able to bring new and existing providers together to do an onboarding process as a team. DREAM providers are getting more support than they ever had.

Also, this summer, the mental health providers’ roles became 12-month roles. Even though it’s not mandated to have them over the summer, DREAM’s students in summer programming could meet with their school year counselor if their families wanted, because DREAM chose to fund mental health supports throughout the summer.

DREAM: What do you see for mental health support at DREAM in the future?
CC: DREAM is dreaming big about what mental health support can look like when it’s embedded into the fabric of a school system. How far can we take that, and how would that impact our students? Let’s find out.

<a href="https://blog.wearedream.org/author/liz_white/" target="_self">DREAM</a>


DREAM started in 1991 as Harlem RBI, a volunteer-run Little League for 75 kids in East Harlem. Three decades later, the organization serves 2,500 youth across East Harlem and the South Bronx through a growing network of inclusive, extended-day, extended-year charter schools and community sports-based youth development programs. By developing an education model that is responsive to the unique academic and social needs of every child, DREAM is creating a future where all children are equipped to fulfill their vision of success.

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