Behavioral Health Services Respond as Demand for Mental Health Help Increases

by Kate Kennedy | January 6, 2022

By Catherine Lee

Alexis Daye and Karen Ostlie

Members of a Catholic Charities spirituality and recovery group recently published a newsletter called “The Anchor Spirit to Thrive in Troubled Times.” Unable to meet in person last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they brainstormed over Zoom and produced timely, thoughtful articles including one by a woman who hopes that one day she’ll beat the heroin addiction she’s been battling for decades.

Therapist Lydia Cherry, who runs the group, says that the newsletter builds on the skills and interests of the writers, all of whom suffer from severe mental illness. The newsletter is just one of a myriad of ways that Catholic Charities supported clients as the demand for mental health services increased during the pandemic.

The agency’s Behavioral Health Services — recognized by DC’s Department of Behavioral Health with a five-star rating on its provider scorecard — continues to meet the needs of about 1,200 individuals annually who are struggling with mental illness. Catholic Charities employs a person-centered approach to treatment.

“We engage our clients in their treatment by having them identify their strengths and goals,” says Karen Ostlie, senior director of Behavioral Health Services. “We’re always looking at ways to improve the quality of our services, exploring new best practices that address the whole individual.”

Catholic Charities supports individuals living with mental illness by providing psychiatric, educational, employment, housing and ongoing case management services. Following a comprehensive intake assessment, which includes a diagnosis, a client is assigned to either a psychiatrist or a nurse practitioner, depending on their needs, as well as a community support specialist.

Kim Gill, program manager for supported employment, and her team work with adults with chronic mental illness who want to secure jobs. Each client is assigned to an employment specialist who helps them identify their skills and interests and supports them through the job application process. Through the program, clients can enroll in training classes to become dental assistants, certified nursing assistants and truck drivers, among other occupations.

Gill has been working with a 28-year-old woman who became severely depressed when her father passed away. Meeting with the client, who has a full-time night job and cares for her mother and son, Gill helped her enroll in classes to become a dental assistant, which she has successfully completed.

“I didn’t want her to be overwhelmed so we took it one step at a time,” says Gill. “A job can really change a person’s life. Our clients become more confident and self-sufficient. And we help them understand that just because they have a job, they shouldn’t stop taking their medication. We want them to have a better understanding of what they need to do to keep their job.”

Catholic Charities is expanding its Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team, which works out in the community to reach people with severe mental illness challenges who have become disengaged from treatment. The multidisciplinary team includes psychiatrists, nurses, chemical addiction counselors, vocational specialists, social workers and peer specialists.

The ACT team meets from 9 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday for “rounds” to discuss the approximately 150 clients they serve. “With our clients, situations change day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, so we talk about the needs for that day, how we’re going to respond, and the resources we’ll need,” says Alexis Daye, ACT team lead.

Ostlie says she sometimes runs into clients whom she first worked with when she started as a clinical manager at Catholic Charities 18 years ago. Recently, she talked to a man who was about 19 when she first met him. He has earned his GED, has his own apartment and wants to get a job.

“He was really excited, telling me about his apartment,” Ostlie says. “He said he needs clothes so he can start interviewing for jobs. When you’ve seen someone through the struggles but also the recovery, you can see how our services really have a positive impact.”