Mental Health Matters: Local Organizations Help Serve Underserved Communities

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles covering mental health in the metro. Our next series will cover affordable housing. 

In the next year, Omaha will see at least three major projects coming online to address the mental health of underserved communities: the Child Saving Institute’s (CSI) campus expansion, the new Community Alliance headquarters, and Radius. Meanwhile, other organizations are stepping up to address coverage gaps. 

Complex Challenges

Radius CEO and President Nick Juliano is quick to point out that there are “great programs in our community.” The challenge, he said, is that some populations are experiencing complex challenges that current organizations can’t accommodate fully.

For example, Youth Emergency Services (Y.E.S.) Executive Director Kalisha Reed said affordable housing or food insecurity may produce a level of anxiety that an individual may not be equipped to handle. 

“Because of that you might not be able to hold down a job, or you may have discord with co-workers, friends and family. That creates a lot of isolation,” Reed said. 

That’s why several organizations have begun designing a continuum of services that addresses the “whole person.” 

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“Not just their mental health or substance use, but how is their housing situation? How is their food situation? How is their financial situation?” said Aileen Brady, executive vice president, and chief operating officer at the Community Alliance. 

Here are six organizations working in Omaha to help underserved communities. 

Ribbon cutting and open house (photo courtesy of Radius.)
Ribbon cutting and open house (photo courtesy of Radius.)

1. Radius:
5040 Grand Avenue, Omaha 68104

In July, the Radius campus will open in North Omaha to help youth in the juvenile justice system heal and grow in their community. The program focuses on providing a safe living space, cultivating healthy support systems, and providing specialized education and behavioral health services. 

Juliano said before Radius, many youths had to leave the community, and even the state, to receive assistance when there was more than one critical service needed, such as substance abuse and mental health services.

However, he said studies show that youth who remain in their communities during treatment have the most successful outcomes. 

Unfortunately, at the beginning of the process, Steve Gordon said community members were weary, believing the facility would be just another jail. Gordon, along with co-collaborator Alan Tipp, helped create the name and branding for Radius. 

“It was very important to change that perception,” he said. “It became crystal clear that the name was going to have to tell the story of what’s happening inside the facility.” 

‘Radius’ pays homage not only to the physical community the youth are surrounded by but also to the spheres of influence in their lives. 

Behavioral health services will be provided by Charles Drew Health Center. The clinic, located in a separate building, will offer more than behavioral health services and will be open to the community. 

“That’s really important for prevention,” Juliano said. “We’re hoping that when families or youth start to experience challenges, they can come [to this Charles Drew Health Center] and get help.” 

They also hope the clinic’s location will encourage youth to maintain their physical and mental health after leaving the program. 

With that end goal in mind, Juliano pointed to the clinic being identified as a health center. 

“It doesn’t say ‘mental health center,’” Juliano said. “[You could be there for] a school physical, a sore through, a vaccination, or seeing your therapist. 

“It is very important that we are all working to reduce and remove the stigma around getting help.”

New Community Alliance headquarters (Rendering courtesy of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture.)
New Community Alliance headquarters (Rendering courtesy of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture.)

2. Encounter Telehealth

Jen Amis, president and CEO of Encounter Telehealth, said the stigma associated with talk therapy has decreased following the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We saw a big increase, over 100%, in the demand for talk therapy,” she said. “It helped people see mental health as a part of our physical health, and if you’re having mental health issues, it’s going to impact your physical health.” 

Most of Encounter Telehealth’s patients are senior citizens living in a facility. About one-third of them are progressing through dementia, which means an increased level of communication between providers. 

An increasing demographic for Encounter is previously incarcerated individuals who are re-entering society after serving time in federal facilities. These individuals may need help addressing PTSD, substance abuse, or depression and anxiety. 

Encounter is also seeing more patients under the age of 65, which was not the case when Amis started with the company. 

“What we’ve seen in the past eight years is nursing homes becoming more and more like replacements for psychiatric hospitals,” she said. 

She said the younger patients are more likely to have severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, that require them to have 24-hour care. 

The key to success for all patients is being able to treat the whole patient, and oftentimes that means working with a whole care team of primary care doctors, nursing staff, and other specialists. 

3. Community Alliance:
7150 Arbor Street, Omaha 68106

Accessibility was a key factor for Community Alliance’s leadership when the decision was made to build a new headquarters to better meet the needs of the community. 

“As an organization, we wanted to bring our programs together,” Brady said. “Oftentimes people that we serve are involved in multiple programs, and for us that collaboration and communication among teams is so important.” 

The new headquarters will be located off 72nd street and Mercy Road, where public transportation is frequent thanks to surrounding developments. 

The organization, which turned 42 last year, took an additional step in its commitment to the community in 2021 by becoming one of the first Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHC) in Nebraska. 

CCBHC is a commitment to three major directives: expanding timely access, shrinking wait times, and being responsive to community needs. 

The leadership team hopes that the new 127,000-square-foot building will allow them to triple their capacity in five years. 

Brady said in 2022 the organization served about 5,000: 4,000 on a consistent basis, and 1,000 on shorter-term aid. 

At the time of this writing the $60 million project was 95% funded and seeking philanthropic support from the community. 

“When we look at the data and what it’s telling us, we know there is a lot of folks out there that are underserved and need mental health services,” she said. “Right now, honestly, the workforce is what’s holding us back.” 

4. Youth Emergency Services:
2566 Farnam Street, Omaha 68131

To entice future clinicians and build capacity, Y.E.S. built stipends for practicum students into its $190,000 American Rescue Plan Act grant. 

“Typically students don’t get paid for their practicum, but we tried to use this as an incentive to draw people into learning about homelessness through the lens of mental health.” 

Y.E.S. will also be promoting other incentives for students, such as covering the fee for their licensure, tests, or practice materials. 

“We also know that there is a mental health crisis and the emergence of major mental health disorders typically occurs between the ages of 19 and 21,” Reed said. “So there’s the ability for students to be able to treat the emergence of a major mental health disorder and gain a lot of experience.” 

The majority of the grant will enable Y.E.S. to cover startup costs and hire a full-time mental health professional to serve up to 23 youths, ages 12-24, that Y.E.S. helps. 

Previously Y.E.S. contracted with Lutheran Family Services to provide a mental health professional for a few days a week. 

She’s also hoping the competitive salary and other perks will help attract individuals that have more diverse backgrounds so that “youth can have more access to practitioners who maybe look like them or have similar lived experience.” 

5. Therapists of Color Network 

While a general mental health care professional shortage persists, there is an even greater shortage of individuals with diverse backgrounds. Take language for example. 

The Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska reported in its 2021 Legislative Report that in most mental health professions less than 40% of providers speak a language other than English. 

“Efforts are needed to recruit more culturally competent professionals to continue to address language barriers and align closer with cultural backgrounds,” it stated. 

Dalia Ruvalcaba, a licensed bilingual mental health therapist who identifies as Latina,  was unable to find peers of color to connect with at the beginning of her career. Earlier this year she decided to launch the Therapists of Color Network, now with 26 registered clinicians. 

In addition to connecting with peers, Ruvalcaba is hopeful that having diverse backgrounds and cultures in the group will provide a learning environment. 

“I’m a Latina therapist, maybe I could connect with an African American therapist that could help me learn more about their community and culture,” she said. 

The other motivation was to create an easily accessible directory for minorities and people of color who were looking for a therapist. She hopes that if underserved communities see clinicians that look like them they might be more encouraged to seek help. 

“It’s easier to interact with someone if they have a sense of where you’re coming from and why you have the perspectives, beliefs, and values that you do,” she said.

Child Saving Institute main entry (Rendering courtesy of TACKarchitects)
Child Saving Institute main entry (Rendering courtesy of TACKarchitects)

6. Child Saving Institute:
4545 Dodge St., Omaha  68132 

Until more diverse mental health professionals can join the workforce, CSI is utilizing technology to fill the gaps. 

Lora Sladovik, director of mental health services at CSI, said in addition to bilingual therapists and a bilingual office manager, the organization also utilizes a program called Martti by Uphealth. 

“It helps us access over 250 languages,” she said. “If someone calls us we’re not worried about what language they speak. We know we’re going to be able to communicate with them.” 

While CSI has 15 programs ranging from adoption to family empowerment, its mental health division has been expanding rapidly. 

“We are busting at the seams right now and our therapists are all over the building because we don’t have enough space,” Sladovik said. 

Presently, the agency has a waitlist of 150 children who are waiting to receive therapy services or medication management. 

When the $46 million expansion is completed, the hope is to double the number of clinicians CSI employs from eight to 16. 

With a general caseload of about 28-30 children per clinician, the increase would allow CSI to help a minimum of 480 children with a variety of services such as outpatient therapy, parent-child interaction therapy, and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. 

For reference, last year Sladovnik said they were able to help just over 400 children. 

“We’ve been here for 130 years, and this will be the biggest we’ve ever been,” she said.