A new program for young people dealing with mental health challenges in the Pittsburgh area is on the verge of opening a physical space near Allderdice High School.
The mental health service UpStreet was set up in October 2020 as an online service during the height of the pandemic, when young people across the country were struggling with their mental health. The program was the brainchild of Dana Gold, the COO of the social services nonprofit Jewish Family and Community Services [JFCS].
The online start made sense, according to Gold, not just because of the pandemic. “What do kids always have? A phone,” she said. “And where do they go when they’re looking for help? They go to their phone; they go to the Internet.”
But she said she always knew that UpStreet needed a physical space to call home. On Tuesday, the group celebrated a “groundbreaking” in a closed bowling alley down the street from Allderdice High School, the second largest high school in the city, in Squirrel Hill.
A spring survey of Pittsburgh Public School students between the ages of 8 and 18 shows how mental health challenges among young people in Pittsburgh persist. Of the roughly 9,000 students, more than 1,000 said they felt lonely all of the time over the past week. More than 500 said they never felt loved during the past week. And more than 300 said they never felt safe over the past week.
According to UpStreet’s data, more than 250 students at Allderdice High School suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. “Youth can make a good decision to walk down the street, come up to UpStreet, get coffee, get a snack and talk to an adult, talk to a therapist,” she said. “Rather than drinking or smoking or making some really poor choices somewhere else.”
Erin Barr, the clinical coordinator for UpStreet, said the program has already served around 2,000 young people since it started two years ago, including 9,000 brief support conversations, 130 therapy clients and around 900 in groups and community programs. UpStreet has three full-time therapists and several graduate students who offer immediate counseling support online, ongoing therapeutic services and peer counseling. They offer support for everyday problems, ongoing mental health challenges and safety concerns, she said. The program is also providing help to parents and other adults who need assistance working with young people in their lives.
Barr said one of the main advantages of the UpStreet model is how few barriers there are to getting help. “You don’t need an appointment. You don’t have to think ahead. You don’t have to plan about when you’re going to come talk to a mental health professional. You don’t need to be a client. There’s no paperwork to complete. There’s no forms to fill out. We don’t need to know about your insurance. We don’t need to know how you’re going to pay for the services because it’s all free,” she said. “Literally just show up, whether in our physical space here when we’re open, or at our website UpStreetpgh.org.”
Asha Edson, a psychology student at the University of Pittsburgh who has served on the advisory board for UpStreet since it started, said that she has suffered from mental health challenges and wishes that she had had a program like UpStreet to turn to in school.
“Adolescent mental health is something that is often overlooked and it’s very easy for people to write it off as just the tumultuous, conflicted time of being a teenager. It’s hormones, it’s puberty and everything,” she said. “But it’s a serious issue.”
A spokesperson for JFCS said she expects the new drop-in location to be fully open by the summer.
The spokesperson said two staff people are typically monitoring the online chat and the typical wait time is only a couple of minutes. WESA attempted to use UpStreet’s online chatbot this afternoon and didn’t receive a response from a real person.
The counseling service can be reached at 412-586-3732 or through its website, upstreetpgh.org.