Skills of Central PA hopes to reduce stigma

PHOTO PROVIDED Skills of Central PA’s psychiatric rehabilitation staff continue to provide services remotely via video conferencing.

LOCK HAVEN — May is recognized nationally as Mental Health Month, an opportunity to raise awareness about the impacts of mental illness.

This year, in the face of stress, anxiety, and depression resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Skills of Central PA hopes to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness so more people will seek support when they need it.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about one in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year. Skills of Central PA offers a variety of services to support people living with severe, persistent mental health challenges including drop-in support centers, mobile and site-based psychiatric rehabilitation services, and peer support services. All of the programs help people work toward recovery, overcome barriers, and find hope.

Kelly Shuler, CPRP, is Skills’ director of Recovery Services and oversees the programs. “Reducing stigma related to mental illness is a major goal for us,” she explained. “Stigma creates fear and shame, which can prevent people from seeking help when they need it. Nevertheless, when people finally do receive support, they generally have positive things to say. They also experience recovery.

“For example, one of the people supported by Skills recently told us how he overcame stigma to live independently and maintain gainful employment. He had spent many years living in a personal care home due to challenges caused by his mental illness. He told Skills’ staff that people repeatedly told him he would never live on his own or be able to hold a job, and that he should accept this as his life. After some time, with encouragement from his providers, he decided that his goal was to live on his own and find a job. Working with support from Skills and the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, he was able to overcome the stigma that he had felt his entire adult life. Today, he has held independent employment for over two years and has lived on his own for over three years,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created additional challenges for people experiencing mental health symptoms and for mental health providers. Skills is no exception.

“We’re definitely hearing from people that they are experiencing feelings of loneliness and isolation, as well as increased anxiety with all the uncertainty due to COVID-19,” said Shuler. “In addition, we’re used to seeing people face-to-face when they need help, but that’s not possible right now. Our staff has come up with some incredibly creative ways to continue providing support for people while still adhering to social distancing guidelines.

“For example, Skills’ drop-in centers–active, vibrant group programs temporarily closed due to social distancing precautions–are now offering video and telephone drop-in times open to anyone with a need. Site-based, mobile, and peer-supported psychiatric rehabilitation programs–normally delivered face-to-face–are using telehealth technology to make virtual one-on-one and group sessions possible.

“In some cases, Skills’ staff and the people they support go on virtual walks together while talking on the phone. One program–the Opportunity Centre Clubhouse in State College–is doing online cooking sessions using the Zoom video conferencing platform. They’re also planning to plant flowers together virtually using Zoom. Skills staff will drop off planting supplies for the person–a small planter, soil, and flower–and they’ll plant the flower together via video conference. Once the Clubhouse program is able to re-open, the hope is that they can plant the flower in the ground together, not virtually, but face-to-face and side-by-side.”

Skills is hopeful that its ongoing efforts will encourage more people to seek the help they need.

“If there’s one thing I could tell people,” said Shuler, “it would be that you are not alone and there are people ready to help. Despite the challenges caused by COVID-19, we’re still available to help people if they need it.”


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