Mental health care needs in St. Lawrence County could get some much-needed direction and support thanks to a research fellowship awarded to a Clarkson University faculty member.
Elizabeth Pienkos, Psy.D., assistant professor of psychology at Clarkson University, was awarded a T. Urling and Mabel Walker Research Fellowship for her proposal “Perceptions of mental health care and service needs in of St. Lawrence County.” Her project will explore unmet mental health care needs in the county.
Pienkos hopes her study will draw attention to a crucial, but often overlooked aspect of well-being in St. Lawrence County and support the development of new, targeted services for community members. While several new mental health initiatives have been introduced in the county, high rates of inpatient psychiatric hospitalizations and mental health-related emergency rooms visits still exist. She anticipates being able to determine which services and supports are necessary to decrease the use of emergency services on the way to improving overall mental health and reducing the likelihood of crisis situations.
“I want to learn about what is most important to people who utilize mental health services to achieve their recovery goals and to share what is learned with local clinicians, administrators, and officials,” Pienkos said. “My goal is that the data from this project will reflect the needs and values of the people who use these services, and help to shape program development and strengthen future requests for funding.”
According to the Local Services Plan for Mental Health Hygiene Services prepared by the St. Lawrence County Community Services Board, the average behavioral health emergency department visits per 100,000 residents from 2011-2015 for the most major population centers were:
- Potsdam – 984
- Canton – 1,035
- Gouverneur – 1,813
- Ogdensburg – 3,008
- Massena – 3,691
The report also showed that many individuals who sought mental health care spent long hours, sometimes days, waiting for inpatient care despite adult and children units in the county.
The project, centered around interviews with small focus groups of St. Lawrence County residents who have or currently receive mental health services, is intended to address the gap in knowledge between existing services and community needs. Funds will primarily provide incentives for focus group participants. Money will also be used to hire a community-based co-researcher with local expertise and transcribe focus group interviews. Recruiting for focus group participants will begin this summer or fall, once the study has been designed and approvals received. It is expected to take approximately a year to collect, analyze and prepare a report of the data gained from the focus groups.
Pienkos earned her bachelor’s degree in French Studies from Rice University and her doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Rutgers University. She was pleased by the support for, and interest in, mental health in the region and is hopeful that her study will be the first of many initiatives to raise awareness of mental health and the need for resources in the county.
Her interest in unmet community mental health care needs began when she first began working in mental health care as a group home support staff member for individuals with mental illness. It was her experiences in this role that led her to pursue a career in clinical psychology.
“I was struck by how often the concerns and wishes of patients were dismissed by some staff members, as well as how much it mattered to the residents when someone paid attention to their concerns,” Pienkos said. “This project is one way to bring these issues into the open, to emphasize their importance and value when developing new programs and allocating resources in the county and state.
“I hope this will be one initiative among many that moves people with mental illness out of the margins and recognizes them as integral and essential members of our communities,” she said.
The T. Urling and Mabel Walker Research Fellowship program was in established in 1994. The purpose of the program is to encourage faculty from the region’s 11 institutions of higher learning to undertake research on critical issues confronting North Country communities and to make recommendations for potential solutions. It is designed to promote greater community-academic cooperation. A maximum of two research projects of up to $5,000 can be awarded each year.
The 11 institutions include: Adirondack Community College, Clarkson University, Clinton Community College, Jefferson Community College, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, North Country Community College, Paul Smith’s College, St. Lawrence University, SUNY Canton, SUNY Plattsburgh and SUNY Potsdam.