3 Pittsburgh organizations working to increase access to mental health services

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Before the pandemic, society was already in a mental crisis. Now it’s worse. A surge in demand combined with too few providers and high treatment costs can make access to services more difficult.

Where traditional health systems lag behind, community groups step in. From providing therapy for Black Pittsburghers and new parents to creating virtual healing spaces in the community, three Pittsburgh organizations are filling the gaps in need.

Steel smiling

Last spring, two and a half months after the pandemic started and six days after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, Julius boat builder published an offer on his personal Facebook page. When a black man in Pittsburgh needed therapy but couldn’t pay for it, Steel Smiling tried to help.


“I think a couple might like it, some share it, some people will get in touch,” said Boatwright, founder of the nonprofit Black Mental Health Steel smiling. “It definitely went viral in Pittsburgh.”

The post was shared over 500 times. Without prompting, donations began streaming on Steel Smiling’s GoFundMe page – ultimately raising over $ 120,000 for today’s Black Mental Health Fund. Since then, the organization has received around 300 referrals, Boatwright estimates. Most are from Pittsburgh, although some were from the United States and even the Dominican Republic.

India Renae Hunter, then a PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh, was one of them. After struggling to find one Therapist who accepts Medicaid, Hunter reached out to Steel Smiling last June. “From then on, the process was really easy,” she said. In July, she was linked to a therapist through the Black Mental Health Fund. Now they make calls once a week. “She’s been really helping me,” said Hunter.

The donations and the support of several foundations * have financed the work of Steel Smiling. But there is a challenge: Pittsburgh’s limited number of black mental health professionals. “It’s great to have more people coming up, but now there aren’t enough black therapists to meet the need,” said Boatwright.

The waiting times to get in touch with a therapist can vary from a week to three months. That’s why the organization started a new program last month. During weekly pre-treatment experience sessions, individuals can learn about therapy, attend group support sessions, or do activities like gardening and yoga. The aim is to provide free assistance while people wait for services.

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