Therapists Helping Patients in Allegheny County Thrive

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A mental illness can affect a person of any age, race, religion, or income. Mental illnesses are treatable.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 70-90 percent of individuals diagnosed with a serious mental illness experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in a treatment plan. 

Mental illnesses vary in terms of severity. About 6 percent, or 1 in 17 Americans, suffer from a serious mental illness. NAMI estimates that mental illness affects 1 in 5 families.

The first step that a person should take is to get help immediately.  Whether it is the individuals themselves or the family members, there are plenty of places to turn for help in Allegheny County. 

The Bureau of Adult Mental Health of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services is one such place.  The organization, through about 40 community-based mental health agencies, provide, contract for, and monitor services designed to meet the mental health needs of Allegheny County residents.

They oversee the Allegheny Crisis Emergency Services (ACES) hotline, (1-888-424-2287), which is staffed by professional behavioral health counselors who provide round-the-clock crisis counseling, emergency care, and referrals for individuals in crisis situations.

ACES is managed by three licensed community behavioral health providers, Mercy Behavioral Health, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC) and Family Links. They provide licensed telephone and mobile behavioral health crisis intervention services for all residents of Allegheny County.  The hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is staffed by trained crisis clinicians who handle telephone crisis calls and/or requests for services. Their staff screens and triages individuals for services according to their level of need at the time of the call. 

Services can be provided at home, a provider’s office, or by telephone.  Callers can receive immediate crisis counseling and/or be referred to a behavioral health provider. Walk-in crisis services are also available.   Insurance or lack of insurance is not a barrier to receiving service.  In fact, most community mental health providers offer services to people who are uninsured.

Kimberly Welsh, of the Bureau of Adult Mental Health – Special Projects, says that for home-bound seniors, an ACES mobile crisis team will respond on site. 

“These are trained professionals who will come out and assist someone who cannot leave their home,” she explains.  “They can do an array of things to help someone such as provide mental health resources and refer individuals to organizations for services which will meet their needs. One such program is the Geriatric In-Home Program, run by WPIC, which provides services in the home for homebound seniors.”

The Warm Line (1-866-661-WARM (9276)) is another hotline that seniors can call for help.  The hotline is a consumer-operated telephone service provided by the Peer Support and Advocacy Network (PSAN) in partnership with DHS Office of Behavioral Health and the Community Care Behavioral Health Organization.  The line provides friendly peer support for anyone who needs someone to listen.  They also learn about community resources available to them.

“Many seniors use this hotline. It’s such a wonderful service,” says Kimberly.  “It’s not for crisis situations, but only if someone needs to talk or need information on services.  It’s a listening ear for those who need someone to talk to.”

The lines are answered daily from 2-10pm.  Operators are available to provide information and referrals to mental health consumers as well as to offer emotional support.  If a senior is in crisis, an immediate direct connection is made to the ACES 24-hour hotline.

Kimberly mentions that other county-wide programs are available to assist with providing information and referral.  One such program which opened in May of this year is the Allegheny Link to Aging and Disability Resources (1-866-730-2368).  There are also organizations that assist by identifying seniors who may be in trouble. This is referred to as the “gatekeeper” model. For instance, the U.S. Postal Office has a system in place where the mail carrier can alert the post office if a customer hasn’t picked up his or her mail in awhile. The post office in turn can notify a community program that will then check on the individual.

In her position, Kimberly has seen families call for help for a loved one more often than a self-referral.  That’s just one of the obstacles that seniors have in getting help for their illness.  Because of the stigma associated with mental illnesses, most people – especially seniors – are reluctant to get help for themselves. 

The Mental Health Association of Allegheny County states that many people can be successfully treated with medications and psychotherapy so they can continue to lead normal lives.  They also state that a person with a mental illness does not bring the disorder upon himself, nor do family members cause it to happen.

According to the organization, a mental illness is a serious medical problem of the brain that can interfere with a person’s ability to think, feel and relate to other people and the environment.

Among seniors, Kim says that one of the most common mental illnesses is major depression.  This is the most serious type of depression, in terms of number of symptoms and severity of symptoms. While most people have experienced temporary sadness that may last a few hours or days, major depression is a serious condition that affects a person’s ability to function over a long period of time.

If you are a spouse or relative of someone with mental illness, the NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program can help you too.  The organization offers a free 12-week
course that focuses on schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, co-occurring mental illness and addictive disorders, and borderline personality disorder.

The course discusses the clinical treatment of these illnesses and provides the knowledge and skills that you need to cope more effectively. Participants learn about handling crises and relapses; communication techniques; problem solving and limit setting; stress reduction; medications; community services and support; as well as advocacy. The program is designed for family members, rather than the individuals diagnosed with a major mental illness themselves.  For more information, call 1-800-264-7972.