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North Hills Monthly

UpStreet Provides New Way for Teens and Young Adults to Connect with Mental Health Support

Nov 30, 2020 02:04PM ● By Shari Berg

Anxiety disorders and depression are among the most diagnosed mental health conditions in teens and young adults. For some, getting that diagnosis is half the battle. Average wait times for evaluation and treatment nationwide are 7-1/2 weeks, and The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists (AACAP) has identified Pennsylvania as one of 42 states with the longest delays.

Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh (JFCS) is tackling the issue of easier access for teens and young adults with an innovative program called UpStreet. Launched in October, the online platform is a new way to connect with mental health support.

Dana Gold, chief operations officer at JFCS, said the idea was born out of the need to improve both access options and delays in service.

“As we worked with youth through our other programs, we were able to see that there just weren’t enough counseling services for people in their teen years into their young adult years. We would receive calls from parents and family members looking for counseling for teens, and we didn’t have the staff to accommodate the requests,” she explained.

All of that is changing with UpStreet. “Families used to have limited options such as going to Western Psych or an emergency room if it was a crisis situation,” said Gold. “There was nothing in between. We knew that parents were struggling, that kids were struggling.”

The goal of UpStreet is to destigmatize access. Helping teens and young adults feel comfortable enough to reach out for help was part of the equation in building the new service, Gold said. 

Before COVID-19 hit the area hard, JFCS was pursuing a physical location for UpStreet on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. The original plan was to partner with the Friendship Circle, a Pittsburgh nonprofit with a mission of creating a more inclusive community. Friendship Circle is developing the property to include a café on the lower level. Gold said JFCS arranged to have an UpStreet counseling location on the second floor.

“Our thinking was, kids could stop by for coffee and snacks downstairs, then come up to see us if they had anything they wanted to talk about. They didn’t need an appointment. They were able to just drop in,” said Gold. “They could come by because they were having a bad day, or they were struggling with a difficult decision or they were afraid to go home or they just wanted to talk things through.”

Trained office staff at UpStreet would greet and assess walk-ins and provide immediate assistance. Referrals for other services, as needed, would be available. That was the plan.

“But then corona hit,” said Gold. “We couldn’t even walk in anywhere, let alone start construction.”

So, in March, JFCS began to seek out alternative ways to move forward with their plans in a different format. They began researching alternatives and discovered some interesting online options.

“One of the essential pieces of UpStreet is this kind of brief support, where you can just come in and talk,” said Gold. “So, we thought, what if chatbots—those things that pop up on websites to see if they can help you—were counselors or therapists to interact with kids to see how they could help them?”

UpStreet launched its companion website at https://upstreetpgh.org, complete with a chatbot feature. Visitors to the site are greeted by a real person on the 

other end of the chatbot who engages them immediately and works to identify the kind of help or services needed to address specific problems and situations.

“We’re trying to take away all these barriers, and the huge barrier in these COVID times is the ability to go anywhere and to see anyone,” said Gold. “So, we’re using technology to try to be right there on this journey with youth who are struggling so we can be where they are, even if they can’t walk in with a cup of coffee or a soda to chat.”

Also in development is a text-based peer mentoring program that allows youth who have experienced struggles themselves or who are graduate students with mental health concentrations to pair up with teens and young adults seeking peer support. The program is supervised by UpStreet counselors using evidence-based resources. It is expected to launch in December or January. 

A similar mentoring service for parents, which is expected to launch in late spring or early summer 2021, is also planned. 

“It’s really hard to know what to do as a parent. It’s scary when you see your child despondent or starting to get distant and maybe even experimenting with drugs or alcohol,” said Gold. “We want parents to support one another through this as well.” 

UpStreet has not abandoned its pursuit of in-person locations and hopes to expand into neighboring communities once the pandemic restrictions are lifted.

All services associated with UpStreet are vetted closely by a youth advisory board consisting of youth from local colleges and high schools. Advisory board members provide insight and guidance. 

“Our website is very simple, and the reason for that is the youth advisory board kept telling us they just want to get help. They don’t want the videos and moving pictures and all that,” said Gold, adding that the site is optimized for mobile phones because that’s how youth are accessing UpStreet’s services.

UpStreet also has tremendous support from an advisory committee consisting of local physicians, psychiatrists, and youth advocates.

“We have experts who are helping to inform this process and are really excited about this new modality of reaching kids where they are to give them the support they need,” said Gold.