Costs and wait times limit mental health access. These Pittsburgh organizations are stepping up to help.

by Juliette Rihl, (PublicSource)

Before the pandemic, society was already experiencing a mental health crisis. Now, it’s even worse. A surge in demand, combined with too few providers and high treatment costs, can make accessing services challenging. 

Where traditional health systems are lagging, community groups are stepping in. From providing therapy to Black Pittsburghers and new parents to creating virtual community healing spaces, here’s how three Pittsburgh organizations are filling gaps in need. 

Steel Smiling

Last spring, two and a half months into the pandemic and six days after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, Julius Boatwright posted an offer on his personal Facebook page. If any Black person in Pittsburgh needed therapy but couldn’t pay, Steel Smiling would try to help.

“I’m thinking, a couple likes, a couple shares, a few people will reach out,” said Boatwright, founder of the Black mental health nonprofit Steel Smiling. “It definitely went Pittsburgh-viral.”

Julius Boatwright, the founder of Steel Smiling. (Courtesy photo)

The post was shared over 500 times. Without prompting, donations started streaming on Steel Smiling’s GoFundMe page — ultimately raising over $120,000 for what is now the Black Mental Health Fund. Since then, the organization has received about 300 referrals, Boatwright estimates. Most are from Pittsburgh, though some reached out from across the United States and as far away as the Dominican Republic. 

India Renae Hunter, then a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, was one of them. After struggling to find a therapist who accepts Medicaid, Hunter reached out to Steel Smiling last June. “From there, the process was really easy,” she said. By July, she was connected with a therapist through the Black Mental Health Fund. They now talk over the phone once a week. “She’s just been very helpful for me,” Hunter said. 

The donations, plus support from several foundations*, have funded Steel Smiling’s work. But there is a challenge: Pittsburgh’s limited number of Black mental health professionals. “It’s great that more people are reaching out, but now there aren’t enough Black therapists to meet the need,” Boatwright said. 

Wait times to connect with a therapist can vary from one week to up to three months. So last month, the organization launched a new program. During weekly pre-treatment experience sessions, individuals can learn about therapy, go to group support sessions or do activities like gardening and yoga. The goal is to provide support, free of charge, while people wait for services. 

“We know it’s not like you call in on Monday and you’re in therapy on Tuesday,” Boatwright said.

Julius Boatwright is the founder of Steel Smiling, an organization dedicated to Black mental health. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

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Costs and wait times limit mental health access. These Pittsburgh organizations are stepping up to help.

 

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