Brain Science and Updates From the Field

Peer Specialist speaks on important issue

Monday, January 25, 2016

Certified Peer Specialists serve a vital role in Stairways Behavioral Health’s mission of recovery, providing the valuable resource of having directly experienced mental illness.

This personal understanding serves not only as an asset for Stairways’ clients but also a wealth of knowledge for clinicians and other mental health professionals to tap into.

Peer Specialist Edna Lingenfelter’s recent work is an example of just that type of resource.

Lingenfelter (left, with colleague Theresa Abbey) works with 10 different peers who struggle with various mental health issues, such as self-esteem, depression and anxiety among others. And her insight into one specific issue—self-injury— has been the particular focus of Stairways staff recently.

Lingenfelter has recently made presentations on the topic to Stairways’ Board of Directors and the Assertive Community Treatment team.

“I shared ideas with our Board and staff about the work I'm doing with clients. And as a consumer, I spoke to how I’d want to be approached,” said Lingenfelter, who said she has a history with self-injury. Lingenfelter said having the credibility as someone who understands through experience why clients cut themselves has helped her establish trust with clients.

Self-harm, specifically cutting, is a difficult subject to understand for many, and treating the behavior can be challenging for clinicians, as each case is unique, she said.

“It’s instant—I guess you would say satisfaction,” she said. “People think the people who do it are suicidal when it’s actually the people who feel like their life is out of control and this is one thing that they can control.”

In her presentations, Lingenfelter offered alternative ways of addressing clients who often hide their cutting for fear of misunderstanding. She presented practical examples of coping mechanisms that have been effective with clients she has worked with, such as applying temporary tattoos, drawing on your arm and consulting a 1-800 self-injury hotline.

Lingenfelter said she sees helping clients find the proper tools such as these as the most important part of her job.

“I want people to see they can make the change in their lives or see that they already have the skills,” she said.

Lingenfelter’s work with self-injury is just one example of how Stairways’ use of its peer specialists program helps complement not only mental health treatment, but those providing that treatment as well.

New group activity adds color to therapy

Monday, January 25, 2016

Depending on one’s frame of mind, a blank canvas can represent unlimited potential or feel incredibly intimidating.

Properly framing that mindset is the function of Counseling in Colors, an activity that integrates painting with group therapy at Stairways Behavioral Health’s Residential Treatment Facility for Adults.

“I had been to a Cocktails and Colors event and thought about how I could put a CBT twist on it,” Jennifer LaRoche, a therapist at RTFA, said.

CBT — Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — is a form of psychotherapy predicated on the idea that thoughts, or cognitions, have a direct effect on feelings and behaviors and that if negative and distorted thoughts can be changed, so too can the effects that accompany them.

LaRoche consulted Josh Staszewski, rehabilitation coordinator at RTFA and amateur artist who studied art in college. He determined that the process of painting could help the clients challenge negative thoughts that occur automatically.

“It was a method to apply CBT to real life situations and address thought distortions in a way that we can use painting to practice proper cognitive techniques,” LaRoche said.

LaRoche and Staszewski came up with a format in which they could elicit distorted thoughts by setting up paint stations for clients before they arrive for group therapy. When 15 clients enter the room, so too do their feelings of insecurity about sitting at an easel and applying paint to a canvas.

“Everything is set up when they walk in and you instantly can see the fear in their eyes and we ask ‘how do you feel?’” Staszewski said.

Clients typically respond with thoughts of doubt and fear about their ability to complete a painting. These voiced thoughts are written on the board.

Staszewski then shows a scene as an example and prompts the clients on what object to paint. The group painted a pumpkin in November and a snowman for December.

The caveat? Each client is given free rein on how their work is depicted.

“I’ll set some guidelines as what to paint but that is the only criteria,” Staszewski said. “They ask questions and I’ll give guidance but I won’t touch the painting because that’s theirs.”

Both sessions have lasted between two to three hours, giving everyone the chance to put the desired touch and detail on their works.

And although clients typically have minimal or no experience, whatever struggles they experience behind the easels become reason to connect and share ideas with the other new artists, who include a handful of staff members with a brush in hand.

“Staff are much in the same boat as the clients who haven’t painted before and it makes them appear vulnerable and allows us to connect and be supportive of each other,” she said. “That opens up connections because we talk about how everyone has distortions.”

After everyone has finished painting, the group revisits the automatic thoughts that were posted to the board before the class and identifies how they were distorted and misleading.

At the end of the session, clients have not only completed an exercise in how to adjust their thought processes, but also have a visual representation of the work they have completed, which they display or give as gifts. In addition, they will also walk away having learned a valuable coping skill to use in moments of need, according to Staszewski.

“It opens up other discussions about ‘this is how you can step away from stress for a short period and put your effort into something else,” he said. “When they’re getting stressed, it gives them an idea that ‘hey, I can get a cheap camera and start taking photographs or use a coloring book to relax.'”

LaRoche and Staszewski plan to hold the next Counseling in Colors session sometime in February, though the lessons the session promotes can be applied to any canvas in life.

“We use this in a way to let them see how they can do this with their thoughts all of the time,” LaRoche said.


Stairways doc featured nationally, talks fellowship

Friday, December 18, 2015
Stairways Behavioral Health’s Medical Director, Penny Chapman, M.D., was recently featured in Psychiatric News, a publication of the American Psychiatric Association.

In the Nov. 20 article, Chapman describes the Rural Public Psychiatry Fellowship which connects new psychiatrists with patients in underserved regions of Western Pennsylvania. Chapman co-directs the eight-year-old program with Manish Sapra, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine houses the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic (WPIC), which serves as the academic home to the fellowship program.

According to the article, psychiatrists serving rural areas face the unique challenges of lower salaries and isolation from their peers, which can result in faster burnout. Chapman sees the Fellowship as an opportunity to address those challenges, providing attractive incentives locally for the recruitment and retention of the best new attending doctors.

“We have trained six fellows so far, and they have all stayed in Pennsylvania and are doing community psychiatry,” Chapman told Psychiatric News.

As a partner in the program, Stairways has been the fortunate beneficiary of these new doctors’ talents. Fellows provide Stairways’ clinical programs psychiatric care four days a week and then dedicate a fifth day to completion of their fellowship requirements.

These requirements include attending professional development webinars and networking with and learning from some of the most experienced professionals in the field. Additionally, fellows pursue a self-guided initiative they wish to research, develop and practice for the enrichment of their community practice.

“It’s such a great opportunity for your attending benefits to allow a time to continue to learn and to develop something that provides advantages to the community,” says current program fellow, Joseph Holmes, D.O.

Holmes grew up in rural West Virginia and attended West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in Lewisburg. He is now an attending physician at Stairways’ Erie Outpatient Clinic, where he is developing and testing a new telepsychiatry initiative, which will contribute significantly to the flexibility and availability of doctor time for Stairways’ many clinical programs and locations.

Holmes has found Chapman’s fellowship program to be instrumental as he lays the foundation for his psychiatric career.

“This is a clinically-focused fellowship, which is great,” Holmes said. “The point of being in community psychiatry is that you are active, not an academician.” Through Dr. Chapman I have had access to people with experience in systems, like Rick Seager and James Shuster.”

Chapman is quick to add, “Dr. Sapra and I have received immeasurable support from Dr. James Schuster, chief medical officer and VP of physical health integration for Community Care Behavioral Health Organization.”

Under Schuster’s guidance, the fellowship has been able to set up a bi-weekly webinar series which connect local fellows with others, state-wide, and feature a wide range of experts in the field, teaching about current topics in behavioral health.

Additional support comes from individuals and organizations like David Dinich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Leadership Council (PPLC).

“The PPLC is at the very forefront of psychiatric innovation and recovery-oriented practice,” explains Chapman. “They are able to connect our fellows with leading experts, as well as senior politicians and administration in Harrisburg.”

Dr. Holmes credits the reason he became interested in community psychiatry to a “Systems in Psychiatry” webinar presentation by Rick Seager, CEO of Journey Health System (Stairways is a member of Journey Health System).

“What really struck me about what he said was that understanding public systems allows you to multiply the impact you can have on patient life by thousands,” shares Holmes.

“I can be the best psychiatrist in the world and I can churn through patients all day long, but if I can learn how to put in place systems, if I can advocate for a valuable idea, then I can get funding, and I can turn it from a good idea into something that’s happening. Then I can impact far more good than I ever could, even as the best clinician in the world.”

This desire for greater impact even while providing local value is exactly the type of outcome Chapman hopes to foster through her fellowship program.

“One of the original goals for the psychiatric fellowship program was to ensure that our area receives highly qualified psychiatrists, who can care for, and who care about, people of diverse backgrounds,” says Chapman.

But many locally trained residents are leaving the state after training.

“We need to create more opportunities for new psychiatrists, more reasons for them to stay,” Chapman said.

Meghan McCarthy, D.O. completed two years of the fellowship with Chapman, and has continued to work at Stairways for five years as an attending physician at the outpatient clinic and with the residential programs. McCarthy, an Erie native and LECOM graduate, views the fellowship as an integral extension of her medical training.

“As an attending, I got to work as a doctor, but then I had a day in which I was able to do something I really loved, and then circle back with Dr. Chapman and have great supervision around this,” says McCarthy.

With a few years of experience and perspective, one of the most meaningful outcomes of the program was that it allowed her the space to think about the kind of doctor she wanted to be.

“So many people get out of residency and take a job and they just start working,” McCarthy says. “This challenged me to think, ‘What kind of psychiatrist do I want to be in this community? How do I want to impact my community?'"

McCarthy explored the patient/family doctor/psychiatrist relationship as part of her fellowship initiative. She was aware that a group of individuals in the community fall through a gap; patients are seeing a family doctor but are not getting the right treatment for their mental illness.

McCarthy logged many hours at Community Health Net and in primary care doctors’ offices, consulting with them to determine the best treatment strategy for particularly challenging individuals.

Sharing these experiences with Chapman helped to guide McCarthy in providing the most effective consultation and support for these family doctors, relationships with whom McCarthy formed and maintains to this day.

McCarthy also wanted to explore the benefits of bringing families into the treatment process for greater understanding and assistance with their loved one’s recovery.

In addition to training all of the residential program therapists in structured family therapy, she initiated a regular “family night” at Stairways’ residential treatment facility for adults. In the years following, she has expanded this family focus across the organization.

As McCarthy expanded her view of individual patients to include their family doctor and also their family supports, she came to appreciate the comprehensive mental health system in Erie.

“I don’t think I would have nearly the depth of perspective I have without the fellowship, to understand and see the system as clearly as I have been able to, or to fully participate in that system without the aid of Dr. Chapman and the fellowship,” says McCarthy.

Chapman offers her own admiration for those fellows whom she supervises, including a second, current fellow, DeanAnn Farris, D.O., who serves as an attending physician through another Journey Health System affiliate.

Regarding Holmes and McCarthy, Chapman is effusive.

“Dr. Holmes is intelligent, articulate and brings to his fellowship the particular skill of fluency with IT systems. His passion and enthusiasm is infectious, and he gives the best possible chance of adding the modality of telepsychiatry to the menu of services at Stairways.”

Chapman called McCarthy “an extraordinary psychiatrist to mentor through the fellowship at the start of her career.”

“She brings a combination of clinical skill and great personal empathy to her work with a very challenging population. She is calm, concerned, enormously hard-working, and retains a sense of humor even when times are challenging.”

Chapman believes that Stairways’ return on its investment is beneficial in both the short and the long-term, as the organization retains bright and enthusiastic doctors committed to community psychiatry.

“It is more than just one doctor, working with Stairways as they complete their fellowship,” Chapman explains. “These talented and committed doctors are also mentoring the more junior psychiatrists, helping them to see the importance and advantages of continuing strong work within the community sector.”

WRAP program a helpful tool for Stairways clients

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Stairways Behavioral Health is encouraging the use of an intuitive tool to help individuals.

The Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) is a self-designed prevention and wellness process that anyone can use to get and stay well. The WRAP is a way to identify upsetting events and develop an action plan to respond to these occurrences.

All WRAPs serve as a toolbox when dealing with stressful events or unwanted feelings. A Wellness Recovery Action Plan includes a daily maintenance plan, a list of triggers, early warning signs and indications of when things are breaking down. WRAPs also include a crisis plan and a post-crisis plan.

Stairways is implementing WRAPs throughout the agency to use a tool for clients when they are faced with unwelcome or difficult situations. Staff members from Stairways’ peer specialist program, such as Theresa Abbey, are helping to facilitate WRAP trainings and introduce the wellness program across the agency.

Abbey reports having significant success using it in her life.

“(It’s) a tool I use to help decrease and prevent intrusive feelings and behaviors,” Abbey said. “It gives me personal empowerment, improves quality of my life and finally achieves my goals.”

Those creating a WRAP are encouraged to take personal inventory of issues that could potentially pose difficulty and consider ways to mitigate their danger.

During trainings conducted at Stairways, participants are encouraged to recognize potential triggers as well as coping skills that may be used to address distressing events.

Abbey, who is a trained WRAP facilitator and presenter, said the ability to sense the signs of distress as well as ways to tend to them has been useful on a number of occasions.

“I remain in control through the process and I think this is important when you feel so out of control,” she said. “It helps me identify what I am like when well and when not so well and who I can use as a support.”

The methods people use to address these situations include those such as deep breaths, exercise and writing. Most people prefer to compile and keep their WRAPs in a binder or notebook for safekeeping and easy access.

WRAPs are designed to be portable, so that the user can consult with them whenever they need to increase feelings of hope, personal responsibility, education, self-advocacy and support.

The system was created by Dr. Mary Ellen Copeland and further developed by a group of people who were searching for ways to overcome their mental health issues and sustain recovery.

The WRAP is recognized by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as an evidence-based practice and is listed in the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices.

Stairways' Chapman named Exemplary Psychiatrist

Friday, October 16, 2015

Dr. Penny Chapman, psychiatrist and medical director at Stairways, recently earned national distinction as a 2015 Exemplary Psychiatrist by the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI).

Chapman is one of 17 psychiatrists from 10 states to earn the 2015 award which honors those who go the extra mile to provide excellent mental health care to individuals living with mental illness. The accolade also recognizes the professionals who work to eliminate stigma, raise awareness and advocate for improvements in the mental health care system. All nominees are submitted through a NAMI State Organization or NAMI Affiliate Office.

This is the 36th year for the award.

Chapman has dedicated her career to “community psychiatry,” a track of psychiatry committed to providing quality care to all patients, regardless of the severity of the illness or ability to pay.

Chapman expressed her gratitude for the award by crediting the staff with whom she works for their contributions.

"It was very heart warming to receive this award, but I am also very aware of the huge support I get from all of our staff over the years which has allowed me to connect with patients and their families," Chapman said.

A native of England, Chapman has worked with Stairways Behavioral Health since 1999. She has been instrumental in helping establish fellowships in an effort to attract psychiatrists to the region, especially in underserved rural regions.

Deeply invested in the community, Chapman has provided psychiatric care and consultation at several local nonprofit organizations.

NAMI of Erie County Executive Director Denise Kolivoski lauded Chapman's efforts, calling her deserving of the award.

“Dr. Penny Chapman is an exceptional example of what NAMI stands for: educating and helping people who live with mental illness,” Kolivoski said. "She has had a positive impact on the lives of the people she has cared for and the mental health community as a whole. NAMI of Erie County is proud to have such a dedicated professional in our community."

Her commitment and devotion to the community also serve as a shining example of Stairways’ mission, making this honor all the more appropriate.

Above: Chapman, left, holds her award with Kolivoski

Peer Specialist Program presents, makes impression at SCI Albion

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

On July 24, 2015, SCI Albion employees hosted a Community Day for the inmates housed in the Residential Treatment Unit (RTU) and  Stairways Behavioral Health’s Certified Peer Specialist program was selected as the only provider  program to present at this event.

Marilyn Goss and Jason Young represented Stairways by giving a presentation to an audience of about 200 inmates.

Goss offered inmates information on the peer specialist program and other services the organization offers.

“It’s important to see peers as people who can assist others who might be facing the same issues,” Goss said.

Young, a certified peer specialist, delivered an impassioned talk in which he addressed the common issues  people with mental illness face despite personally never having had any legal problems himself .

“Even though I have no direct experience with the criminal justice system, it appeared from the feedback I received after the speech overall and from individual audience members that I had made a real connection,” he said.  “I explained to them that hope is real; this was my message to them.”

Every inmate that participated in Community Day signed a Community Pledge, an agreement written by inmates that has 11 actions and values they swore to honor.

Community Day, was developed to demonstrate a healthy sense of respect for social situations and to establish a sense of belonging among the inmates, and coincides with a renewed focus on the value of peer specialists within the state.

Starting last year, SCI Albion has trained inmates as Peer Support Specialists. On June 19, 18 inmates graduated from the program, bringing the total number of CPSS at the prison to 33. Following release from prison, these inmates are eligible for employment based on their training and experience.

Following Stairways’ presentation at Albion, Goss received a positive response from the inmates in attendance.

In a letter voicing his appreciation, one inmate wrote, “Please don’t forget the incarcerated in prison. We are human beings too with heart and feelings.”

Recovery Project Seeks Family Involvement

Monday, June 29, 2015

Lloyd Wertz, center, with Stairways staff during Family Inclusion standards Project training.

When Lloyd Wertz was 8 years old, his father was hospitalized with an ulcer. After medical treatment and after-care, the ulcer was cured and his father was back to normal. “
Normal,” for the Wertz family, however, included the symptomology of mental illness.

“Back then they called it manic depressive illness,” said Wertz, following a recent workshop with Stairways staff. “After his manic phases, my father would sink into a deep, deep depression. He’d be like this for months, and it would get bad.”

At the ripe young age of 14, Wertz found himself the petitioner for his father’s involuntary commitment to a mental hospital – ample motivation for what became a life-long journey toward family awareness and inclusion in the mental health treatment of loved ones.

Wertz first visited Stairways in April of 2012 and returned for the final time in June, 2015, as part of a related research project and to train staff on his organization’s Family Inclusion Standards Project. The project is both professional and personal for him.

“I didn’t understand what was happening with my dad,” Wertz explained. “For his ulcer, he went to the hospital and the doctors fixed him. Shouldn’t it be the same for his depression?” The bipolar disorder eventually claimed Wertz’s father’s life.

What would he do differently then, given what Wertz knows now? The heartbreaking answer to this question comes quickly. “I wouldn’t have blamed my dad for his symptoms for the rest of his life. I thought he should be able to control it. I thought he wasn’t trying. I thought he was a drunk. Now I know he was self-medicating because he was really hurting.”

Wertz would have liked the opportunity to approach his father’s illness in an entirely different way. With greater awareness and information, he could have made things better at home – more comfortable – to assist in his father’s recovery.

This experience is “shared history” for millions of families, says Dr. William Beardslee of Harvard Medical School. In his book, Out of the Darkened Room (Little, Brown, 2002), Beardslee writes, “In far too many families, depression is neither recognized as a serious illness nor understood, and many of the misunderstandings are compounded by guilt and blame, by trying to make sense of the sufferer’s behavior and not knowing how to.”

Wertz, along with mental health providers like Stairways, are determined to change this shared history. Through workshops and trainings, professionals learn to expand their definition of “family” to include all significant persons (friends, roommates, clergy, etc.), and to enhance mental health recovery plans by actively enlisting the support and assistance of all who can affect the life of a recovering person.

Data collection, from routine audits Wertz performs on Stairways’ records, validates research findings and sought-after recovery outcomes. These include more accurate diagnosis, improved protection against relapse or re-hospitalization, lower risk for arrests or homelessness; and improved vocational goals. For families, benefits include a better understanding of their loved one’s recovery process, more realistic expectations, and opportunities to become leaders in advocacy – with health care providers and with the community.

During his training, Wertz reminded staff of more global benefits of deliberately enlisting the help of family or significant persons. “The reality is, the mental health work force is shrinking, even as the number of individuals seeking treatment increases.” With fewer psychiatrists, therapists and social workers entering the field, “We need to expand our resources. This means we need to look to peers. We need to look to family for help.”

Stairways staff attending Wertz’s workshop underscored the benefits of family inclusion with stories from their own experience.

Lisa Peters, mental health worker with Stairways’ new long term structured residence program, recalled a family she formerly worked with as a blended case manager. A daughter found her unresponsive mother, who had attempted suicide. Said Peters, “The daughter and her father stepped in, helped to coordinate coverage, and advocated with available social services.” The result was a strong partnership between family and Stairways staff which promoted all the supports needed for recovery.

Sharon Sandberg, while a therapist through Stairways’ personal care home, credits one resident’s sister with providing crucial information to staff when faced with a medication dilemma. “Our resident required a medication that was very expensive. Through normal coverage and the insurance information we were given, we couldn’t figure out how she could afford them, much less how we could continue to provide them.” The sister gave information about a pension fund the personal care home staff didn’t know about. It was a missing piece of information only her sister could provide.

Such stories are common, said Wertz. “Whether it’s notifying care workers that Johnny only wears sneakers. Ever. Or that Jimmy once lost a girlfriend on July 3rd and struggles with the memory at the same time every year, successful inclusion in recovery always comes down to family members who truly understand their loved one’s needs.”

How does Stairways as an organization measure up with its inclusion efforts? Favorably, according to Wertz’s professional assessment as a researcher and trainer of Family Inclusion Standards. “There are a few agencies in Philadelphia – then Stairways Behavioral Health – who stand out across the whole state for family inclusion,” Wertz said. “Stairways has intentionally made family engagement part of its operational effort. Institutionally, Stairways stands out in the field.”

While Wertz’s assessment is gratifying, the bar only rises as increasing need meets a diminishing workforce. Diminishing funding also means that workforce must continually do more with less. Families and significant others provide an essential part of the equation, said Wertz. “In the end, we are all ‘merchants of hope’ to individuals and their families. ‘Hope’ is the key word, and recovery specialists and family members alike share those same hope-full desires for the future.”

Learn more about the Family Training & Advocacy Center (FTAC) and the PA Psychiatric Leadership Council (PPLC) here:

Out of the Darkened Room: When a Parent is Depressed; Protecting the Children and Strengthening the Family, by William R. Beardslee, M.D., is available through

May is Mental Health Month: Addressing Mental Health B4Stage4

Friday, May 29, 2015

When we think about cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, we don’t wait years to treat them.

When people are in the first stages of those diseases, and are beginning to show signs of symptoms like a persistent cough, high blood pressure, or high blood sugar, we try immediately to treat these symptoms.

We don’t ignore them. In fact, we develop a plan of action to reverse and sometimes stop the progression of the disease.

So why aren’t we doing the same for individuals who are dealing with potentially serious mental illness?

May marks Mental Health Awareness month, a time when millions of Americans across the country become mindful of the prevalence of mental illness and its many means of treatment. This May, the theme has been B4Stage4, focusing on how people can address their mental health in its beginning stages, rather than waiting until symptoms are more severe and recovery is made a longer process.

When you or someone close to you starts to experience the early warning signs of mental illness, knowing what the risk factors and symptoms are will help to catch them early. Often times, family and friends are the first to step in to support a person through these early stages. Experiencing symptoms such as loss of sleep, feeling tired for no reason, feeling low, feeling anxious, or hearing voices shouldn’t be ignored or brushed aside in the hopes that they go away.

Like other diseases, we need to address these symptoms early, identify the underlying disease, and plan an appropriate course of action on a path towards overall health. Mental health conditions should be addressed long before they reach the most critical points in the disease process.

Many people do not seek treatment in the early stages of mental illnesses because they don’t recognize the symptoms. Up to 84% of the time between the first signs of mental illness and first treatment is spent not recognizing the symptoms.

Stairways Behavioral Health is raising awareness of the important role mental health plays in our lives and encouraging members of the community to learn more about their own mental health and to take action immediately if they are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness.

Mental illnesses are not only common, they are treatable. There is a wide variety of treatment options for mental illnesses ranging from talk therapy to medication to peer support, and it may take some time for a person to find the right treatment or combination of treatments that works best for them. But when they do, the results can be truly amazing and life changing.

Stairways wants to help people learn what they can do both to protect their mental health and know the signs of mental illness.

It’s up to all of us to know the signs and take action so that mental illnesses can be caught early and treated, and we can live up to our full potential. We know that intervening effectively during early stages of mental illness can save lives and change the trajectories of people living with mental illnesses.

If you or someone you know is struggling, talk about it! Call us at 453-5806.

Navigating College Emotions

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Prevalence of College Student Mental Health Concerns and Where to Find Help.

College years are filled with a constant ebb and flow of emotions, from hopefulness and exhilaration to frustration and chaos. As finals week approaches, these emotions become even more heightened. Thankfully, professional help stands at the ready. Awareness and recognition is the key for family, roommates and friends to encourage students to seek help.

The Research

Since 1920, the American College Health Association (ACHA) has linked the nation’s college health professionals, serving to advance the health and wellness of college students through advocacy, education and research.

The most recent (Spring 2014) ACHA-National College Health Assessment (NCHA)* surveyed 79,266 students from 140 college, universities and post-secondary institutions across the nation, revealing the following statistics:

The Top Five Health-Related Factors Which Affected Students’ Academic Performance, e.g. lowered grade on exam or project; course dropped or incomplete; significant disruption in thesis or practicum work:

Percentage of students reporting disruptive health factor:

30.3%   Stress
21.8%   Anxiety
21.0%   Sleep difficulties
15.1%   Cold/flu/sore throat
13.5%   Depression

While a full 91.2% of surveyed students described their over-all health as good, very good, or excellent, they also reported the following felt experiences in the previous year:

86.4%   Felt overwhelmed by all you had to do
82.1%   Felt exhausted (not from physical activity)
62.0%   Felt very sad
59.2%   Felt very lonely
54.0%   Felt overwhelming anxiety
46.4%   Felt things were hopeless
37.4%   Felt overwhelming anger
32.6%   Felt so depressed it was difficult to function

Where to Find Help

For students attending 4-year colleges and universities here in Northwestern Pennsylvania, help is as close as a phone call or a short walk across campus. Families, friends and roommates can use the following list to encourage students to the seek professional help available on campus:

Crawford County Crisis Hotline 814-724-2732
Erie County Crisis Services 814-456-2014
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK

Allegheny College Counseling Center
Phone number: 814-332-4368
Location: Reis Hall, 3rd Floor, room 304

Edinboro University Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
Phone number: 814-732-2252
Location: Ghering Health and Wellness Center, McNerney Hall, 1st Floor

Gannon University Counseling Services
Phone number: 814-871-7622
Location: below Harborview House Apartments, 210 W. Sixth St.

Mercyhurst College Counseling Center
Erie Campus - Phone number: 814-824-3650
Location: Cohen Health Center, 4118 Briggs Avenue
North East Campus - Phone number 814-725-6136
Location: Miller Hall 7B

PSU Behrend Personal Counseling Office
Phone number: 814-898-6504
Location: Reed Union Building, First Floor, Room 1

* See the full data for the ACHA-National College Health Assessment survey here:

National Institute of Mental Health Releases Strategic Plan

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The impact of mental health on the American society is often expressed through statistics which are sobering – if not staggering:

  • One in four adults will experience a mental illness in any given year
  • One in five children will experience a seriously debilitating mental disorder at some point in their life
  • Nearly two-thirds of state and federal inmates meet criteria for mental health problems in any given year
  • Suicide is the No. 4 cause of death for adults ages 18-25.
  • More people pay for care related to mental disorders than any other medical condition except for asthma – more than heart conditions and cancer combined.
  • Costs associated with serious mental illness in America exceed $300 billion per year, between direct (treatment and services) and indirect (public expenditure, lost wages and disability support).

At the same time, recent advancements in brain research and understanding about mental illness are just as dramatic, leading to more nuanced treatments and overwhelmingly improved outcomes.

At the intersection of mental health research and statistics lives the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one of the 27 institutes or centers of the National Institute of Health, the nation’s medical research agency.

Charged with the mission of transforming the American landscape of mental health treatment and research, the NIMH recently issued a new five-year strategic plan for research designed to help balance urgent mental health care concerns with long-term research investments.

“A strategic plan can identify the most important problems and identify areas of traction,” said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D., in the Institute’s March 26 release to the public. “This update of our strategic plan is a commitment to take a fresh look at our horizons so that we can refine priorities and energize our path of discovery.”

Incorporating input from more than 600 individuals, groups, organizations and national mental health councils, the new plan identifies four meta-level strategic objectives:

  1. Define the mechanisms of complex behaviors.
  2. Chart mental illness trajectories to determine when, where and how to intervene.
  3. Strive for prevention and cures.
  4. Strengthen the public health impact of NIMH-supported research.

These four objectives form a broad framework for the prioritization of the institute’s research focus – beginning with the fundamental science of the brain and behavior, and ending with public health impact.

Stay tuned as Stairways mental health professionals watch for new research trends which will help transform our friends, family and community members from statistical data points into stories of success and recovery.

The full NIMH Strategic Plan for Research is available online here:

Additional NIMH mental health statistics can be found here:

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