When Stephanie Rodriguez was on her high school swimming team, a lot of her peers — some fixated on their weight — struggled with issues of body image.
“Talking to someone could have been helpful for us,” she said.
Today, Rodriguez is on the other end of the conversation, leading the efforts of Jewish Family and Community Services to break down the walls between youth and counseling. The name of the program is UpStreet and it is a teen mental wellness program offering drop-in consultations with therapists, scheduled therapy sessions, support groups for teens, and even an online “chat-bot” for text-based support.
Thanks to COVID-19, UpStreet’s services are now 100% virtual, open to anyone ages 12 to 22, and available without having to provide proof of insurance coverage.
“From my perspective, teens are looking for more help now,” said Rodriguez, the teen and adolescent therapist with UpStreet. “Since the pandemic started, there has been a lot more activity, especially since [young adults] can do this from their own homes.”
The program, launched earlier this year, already has drawn in about 150 teens and young adults, officials said. It received early support from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation but is now being operated entirely with JFCS funds.
The idea for UpStreet came from Dana Gold, the chief operating officer of JFCS in Pittsburgh. Her primary concern was that Pittsburgh teens lacked quick and easy access to the help they sometimes sorely needed.
“Kids end up suffering much longer than they need to because of the shortage of professionals who treat adolescents — that’s the problem we were trying to solve,” Gold told the Chronicle. “By creating a space, both virtually and physically, where kids can drop in — that’s huge.”
It starts with the chat-bot, which is available on UpStreet’s website, upstreetpgh.org, and allows youth to text chat and find “brief support” with a therapist on the other end.
“Then, if their challenges continue or they’re more involved, we can connect with a therapist for sessions,” Gold said.
UpStreet aims to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health support and to avoid escalation of symptoms to a crisis stage. It is important to note: it is not a crisis or suicide hotline.
Unlike health providers that require a formal intake process before connecting people with services, UpStreet offers instant access to a mental health professional, which is unusual outside of most crisis services, officials said. While they encourage parent involvement when appropriate, UpStreet does not require parents’ consent or involvement for teens older than 14 to begin receiving services.
“Destigmatization, ease of access, removal of barriers — that’s what UpStreet is all about,” Gold said.
“We do not have long wait times,” added Erin Barr, the program’s clinical coordinator. “I do think UpStreet offers, we would say, ‘stigma-free’ therapy. And this can be done from the privacy of your home, from the privacy of your own phone.”
JFCS originally planned to open an UpStreet walk-in center in Squirrel Hill; plans remain to open a physical location on Murray Avenue when it is deemed safe to provide in-person services. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.