Mental Health Awareness Month: Leveling Up to Provide Mental Health Resources

Breakthrough students and families demonstrated remarkable perseverance, resilience and grace, but there is no denying that the crisis of the pandemic continues to impact the mental health and wellbeing of people of all ages. The World Health Organization estimated anxiety and depression increased by 25% worldwide, and that was true within our community. While helping students achieve their postsecondary goals is our overall mission, our day to day work involves supporting them holistically while they are on that journey.

-Zakiyyah Kareem, Chief Student Support Officer

During the pandemic, Breakthrough launched a new initiative to increase holistic support for students and their families: mental health services. Throughout 2021-2022, 165 students worked personally with a mental health professional from Vida Clinic and independent counselors, with services funded by Breakthrough Central Texas. This initiative was led by Breakthrough Chief Student Support Officer, Zakiyyah Kareem, who received her Master’s in Counseling from St. Edward’s University.

Read more below.

Q&A with Chief Student Support Officer, Zakiyyah Kareem

What is your role at Breakthrough? Describe the growth you’ve seen since your time here.

ZAKIYYAH | My name is Zakiyyah Kareem, and I am Breakthrough Central Texas’ Chief Student Support Officer. I’ve had the pleasure of serving at Breakthrough for more than 12 years. Over the course of these 12 years, I have seen Breakthrough expand from just serving a little over 500 students to now supporting over 3,000 Central Texas students and their families. 

Also, I’ve seen Breakthrough expand its services to Manor and Del Valle ISDs. And, as our community has grown, so has our organization’s knowledge and understanding of what it takes to support an individual on their educational journey and navigate the many challenges that can become barriers to their postsecondary goals.

 When did Breakthrough start providing Mental Health support for our students?

ZAKIYYAH| Breakthrough Central Texas has always supported students and connected them to mental health resources. However, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,  the referrals were to school-based contacts or other community organizations with whom we did not have a formal working relationship. We often found that students or families chose not to work with an agency or person who was unfamiliar to them, and our ability to track these referrals was extremely limited.

How have Breakthrough’s mental health supports evolved over time, especially since the start of the pandemic?

ZAKIYYAH |When the pandemic started, we made the pivot, like many other organizations, to provide virtual advising and support services pretty quickly and early on. The impact of the pandemic on the mental health of all of us, and especially children and young adults cannot be overstated.  Breakthrough’s mental health program began modestly by working with three amazing mental health professionals, Jennifer Rivera-Enriquez, Sol Cordova, and Kasandra Washington. More and more students reported feelings of anxiety, depression, worry and grief; coupled with social isolation. What started as a trickle of students requesting counseling quickly turned into a flood. 

Once we built out the referral process, we learned very quickly that we needed more therapists as the need for counseling services quickly outpaced our therapists’ capacity. This led Breakthrough to seek a partner organization that could handle the demand, which is now roughly 40-50 per semester. We also wanted to partner with a provider that was committed to serving diverse, underserved populations, and would be willing to collaborate with us on referral process and billing.

How did Breakthrough’s partnership with Vida Clinic come to be?

ZAKIYYAH | I first heard about the Vida Clinic when they were the mental health provider for Austin ISD, and reached out to Dr. Elizabeth Minne, founder and CEO, in late 2020.  In our initial conversations with the Vida Clinic team, we noticed pretty quickly that they were willing to collaborate deeply with us; they too thought that tracking referrals and scheduling information was important for both of our organizations and collectively we built a mutually beneficial system. Our memorandum of understanding ensures that students and their families have access to high quality counseling services with no costs to the family.

Why is this support so important to you? 

ZAKIYYAH |​I have personally experienced and witnessed the impact of a mental health crisis on your ability to concentrate, learn and achieve your goals. More now than ever, our lives are complicated by non-stop access to information from around the world, social media, and concerns about climate change and economic stability, to name a few. Simply put, just living during these times can have a negative impact on our mental health. Add to that experiences with trauma, food scarcity and other Adverse Childhood Experiences, young people in particular benefit from mental health counseling to learn coping skills to support their already resilient nature.  Access to quality, culturally cognizant mental health counseling is critical to the academic and postsecondary advising that we offer to students and their families in Breakthrough. 

Zakiyyah Kareem

Zakiyyah Kareem

Chief Student Support Officer


Our long-term objective is to ensure students stay on track to attain their postsecondary goals. Through sustained, trusting relationships and by removing barriers to mental health care, Breakthrough can positively impact student progress toward this goal- and through your support, we see this become a reality for more and more students.

Give today to the Student & Family Support Fund to ensure Breakthrough can continue rapidly providing access to mental health services to any student or family who wants or needs them.