3 Pittsburgh organizations working to improve access to mental health services

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This story was originally published by PublicSource, a news partner of NEXTpittsburgh. PublicSource is a nonprofit media organization that supports local journalism publicsource.org. You can register for their newsletter at publicsource.org/newsletter.

Before the pandemic, society was already in a mental crisis. Now it’s worse. A surge in demand combined with too few providers and high treatment costs can make access to services more difficult.

Where traditional health systems lag behind, community groups step in. From providing therapy for Black Pittsburghers and new parents to creating virtual healing spaces in the community, three Pittsburgh organizations are filling the gaps in need.

Steel smiling

Last spring, two and a half months after the pandemic started and six days after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, Julius Boatwright posted an offer on his personal Facebook page. When a black man in Pittsburgh needed therapy but couldn’t pay for it, Steel Smiling tried to help.


“I think a couple might like it, some share it, some people will get in touch,” said Boatwright, founder of the nonprofit Black Mental Health Steel smiling. “It definitely went viral in Pittsburgh.”

The post was shared over 500 times. Without prompting, donations began streaming on Steel Smiling’s GoFundMe page – ultimately raising over $ 120,000 for today’s Black Mental Health Fund. Since then, the organization has received around 300 referrals, Boatwright estimates. Most are from Pittsburgh, although some came from all over the United States and even the Dominican Republic.

India Renae Hunter, then a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh, was one of them. After struggling to find one Therapist who accepts Medicaid, Hunter reached out to Steel Smiling last June. “From then on, the process was really easy,” she said. In July, she was linked to a therapist through the Black Mental Health Fund. Now they make calls once a week. “She’s been really helping me,” said Hunter.

The donations and the support of several foundations * have financed the work of Steel Smiling. But there is a challenge: Pittsburgh’s limited number of black mental health professionals. “It’s great to have more people coming back, but now there aren’t enough black therapists to meet the need,” said Boatwright.

The waiting times to get in touch with a therapist can vary from a week to three months. That’s why the organization started a new program last month. During weekly pre-treatment experience sessions, individuals can learn about therapy, attend group support sessions, or do activities like gardening and yoga. The aim is to provide free assistance while people wait for services.

“We know it’s not like calling on Monday and going into therapy on Tuesday,” said Boatwright.


Learn more at Steel Smiling website.

Forward allies

From infertility to postpartum depression, having a baby can be traumatic. However, access to quality reproductive mental health services is often difficult. Many providers are untrained in reproductive mental health and may deny families’ concerns, said Pittsburgh-based therapist Jodie Hnatkovich. Therapy can get expensive, even with insurance. And many families lack transport and childcare facilities.

Jodie Hnatkovich, one of the founders of Forward Allies. Photo courtesy PublicSource.

That is why Hnatkovich and three of her colleagues founded in 2019 Forward allies for equity in mental and reproductive health, a nonprofit that trains reproductive mental health providers and pays for therapy, transportation, and childcare costs for families using funds from donations and training proceeds. So far, the organization has trained 25 providers and financed therapies for four families. “Taking care of families and parents with young children is so important,” said Hnatkovich. “A family member’s mental health care affects this family cycle for a lifetime.”

During the eight-month training course for psychotherapists, participants are trained on topics such as systemic racism and alliance, LGBTQ parenting and support for postpartum families. The next cohort, due to begin in September, will be open to mental health providers as well as gynecologists, doulas and social workers – “any obstetrician,” said Hnatkovich.

Forward allies

Downtown allies forward. Photo courtesy PublicSource.

Hnatkovich hopes the organization can help eliminate avoidable losses and trauma within the reproductive years. “To give pregnant women the feeling that they are allowed to raise their voices and that they will be heard when they raise their voices.”

Learn more at at Forward Allies website.

Visible Hands Collaborative

“Balance.” “Gratitude.” “Community.”

These are just a few of the words Visible Hands Collaborative attendees added to a word collage describing their June 10th meeting experience. The collaboration, which meets every Thursday evening at Zoom, practices integrative community therapy [ICT], a group therapy method developed in Brazil to improve access to mental health in low-income communities.

The collaboration began when Alice Thompson, a medical student, became interested in ICT during the pandemic. After Thompson participated in a virtual ICT group based in Switzerland, Dr. Kenneth Thompson, received a grant from the Staunton Farm Foundation to fund the first ICT training course in the United States. 35 people, about half of them in Pittsburgh, have been trained to lead their own groups.

Every 90-minute meeting is structured in the same way. The group begins by sharing “celebrations” or good things that happen in their lives. Then – after a brief musical interlude that is encouraged to dance – participants can share a problem or “pebble” they are facing. The group will vote on a pebble to focus on during the meeting and spend time working on it, offering advice, related experiences, quotes, and more.


Public source

At the end of the meeting on June 10th, participants were asked to submit a word to describe what they learned from the meeting.

“’A lot of the power comes from talking to other people about their own experiences with the same kinds of challenges. Because often when we feel down, lonely, or isolated, we can feel like the only ones feeling that way, ”Thompson said.

The “spirit” of ICT sets it apart from other forms of group therapy, said Lem Huntington, mental health case manager and participant in the collaboration. “ICT creates a more solemn and fun mood than a gloomy one, you know, here is another day we lament our woes,” he said. “It contextualizes people’s problems in their search for solutions.”

Unlike traditional psychiatric care, ICT is community based and does not require health insurance or solvency. “This is a middle ground where [meetings] are freely accessible and open to anyone who wants to participate, ”said Thompson. “So there are really no restrictions.”

Learn more at Visible Hands Collaborative website.

* Foundations that support Steel Smiling are the Staunton Farm Foundation, the Hillman Family Foundations, and the RK Mellon Foundation. PublicSource is supported separately by these foundations.

Juliette Rihl is a reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @julietterihl.

This story has been fact checked by Chris Hippensteel.

Mental health reporting has been made possible with funds from the Staunton Farm Foundation, but news decisions are made independently of PublicSource and not on the basis of donor support.


Forward Alliesmental healthPublicSourceSteel SmilingVisible Hands Collaborative

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