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The Foreword

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The Foreword

Barrier-Free Mental Wellness: Meet UpStreet Pittsburgh

The meeting area of Upstreet with colorful chairs, games, and puzzles accessible to all.
The meeting area of Upstreet with colorful chairs, games, and puzzles accessible to all.

The post-pandemic world has caused heightened loneliness and mental health issues for teenagers everywhere. Nearly half of American teens deal with mental health issues, however only 20% receive the care that they need.

In Pittsburgh, less than one block from Allderdice, help exists. 

Located on Forward Avenue and inhabiting space that was formerly Forward Lanes, JFCS UpStreet Pittsburgh is a hidden gem. UpStreet is a teen wellness mental health program that provides accessible, no-appointment-necessary mental health care to any teen who walks through the doors. 

Walking into the UpStreet office, students are immediately greeted with a coffee and tea drink bar, games and puzzles across the room, and a large coloring poster with “You Are Not Alone” sprawled across. The center is incredibly inviting, colorful, and youth-centered.

“The idea is that it’s a therapeutic hangout space,” said Heather McDonough-Caplan, who is one of UpStreet’s youth psychotherapists. She continued, “For example, we have these mental health care packages, kids can come and just hang out… there is the formal brief support and then there is this informal space.”

Therapists Shelby Williams (left) and Heather McDonough-Caplan (right) in the main UpStreet space.

The space is new as of September, but UpStreet is not. As soon as COVID shut down the world, UpStreet completely pivoted its imminent plans of a physical building and rose to action, becoming a central online resource for teens during the difficult time. Through the chat feature on their website, teens chatted – for free – with a licensed therapist about anything on their minds. Although not a crisis response line, the chat offered a listening ear and confidential resource for teens. Spanning beyond the limitations of a locked-down world, the completely online resource provided immense help in a time of uncertainty and sadness for so many teens both inside and outside of Pittsburgh. The chat resource is still in full use on the UpStreet website and is accessible from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. on the weekends.  

Now though, as the world has increasingly loosened pandemic restraints, UpStreet has grown immensely. “I think the pain part is over,” UpStreet psychotherapist Shelby Williams expressed about the difficult transitions that inevitably came with moving into a completely new physical space last fall. “It’s just been growth and community ever since then. Community not only for our students and the youth and everyone who comes through the space, but for us, too,” she reflected. 

With the in-person space, the program has expanded the services it provides. The most unique aspect of UpStreet is the brief-support option.

McDonough-Caplan explained, “The goal of the space is to have kids come in and be able to meet with a therapist in one of the brief support rooms for 30 minutes and talk about their day or whatever is stressing them out, and maybe get a skill, learn something, or just to be heard and validated.” 

One of UpStreet’s drop-in brief-support rooms.

From noon until five o’clock, the UpStreet doors are open to any kids who simply need somebody to talk to. Allderdice students are welcome and encouraged to simply walk down the street, and use the UpStreet brief-support option to unwind with a caring therapist after stressful days of school.

UpStreet also offers longer-term therapy options. Different circumstances may lend to one form of support (brief or long term) making more sense than another. “They’re almost two different tracks that can support each other,” Williams said.

“If, let’s say someone has trauma history, telling that story over and over and over again to different people might not be the most safe way for that person to work through what they’ve been through,” Williams explained. “So they might want to meet with an individual therapist, the same person, every week or every other week,” she recommends. 

While the long-term therapy options are a more traditional approach to the structure of therapy, UpStreet’s approach to the idea of barrier-free support is completely singular. 

With options of free, confidential, and virtual services, UpStreet has intentionally created a space where youth can get the help that they need without barriers like insurance, familial pressure, and difficulty with transportation.

Financially, UpStreet is fully grant funded. The chat option is completely free, and the therapy services are assessed on a case-by-case basis. If need be, they have the option to see everyone for free. This financial flexibility allows UpStreet to give teens the option of confidentiality.

“For anyone over 14 who is interested in accessing therapy services, but for a variety of reasons that may not tell a parent or they want to do so confidentially, that is also an option,” explained Jess Gold, who is the JFCS Mentoring and Outreach Coordinator.

McDonough-Caplan described how exciting this idea of barrier-free therapy program was to her before she even got hired. She said, “I was literally shaking. I was so excited about what this place offers and I realized that it’s a dream job that I didn’t even dare to dream… To get paid to do therapy for free is just, that’s as good as it gets.” 

She expressed her frustration with how difficult access to mental health care is, especially for young people. “That shouldn’t be the hard part,” she said, “Because making the choice to walk in the door is often the hardest part.”

As the Mentoring and Outreach coordinator, Jess Gold is leading efforts to create more programming for the mental wellbeing of teens beyond the therapy option. For example, she is hoping to begin a peer-mentoring program. 

Structurally, she explained, “it’s a text based peer mentoring program that we are going to be working with a cohort of older youth ages 17 to 22, who will be mentors to younger youth ages 12 to 16.” She continued, “The goal is really for our mentors and mentees to be matched for a text messaging-based relationship that provides day to day support with little things.”

Students are encouraged to apply as a mentor or mentee for the cohort this summer or for the cohort next school year. The program’s infrastructure allows for personal growth on both ends, and a foundational, worked-in support system for mentees who may not have it otherwise. For those who are part of the cohorts, Gold hopes to host a kickoff event to help the mentors and mentees get to know eachother. 

UpStreet Pittsburgh is leveling the playing field for access to mental wellness care and programming for youth across Pittsburgh. For Allderdice students, accessing help could not be easier–barrier-free care is between school and the main bus stop. 

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About the Contributor
Naomi Segel, Co-Editor-in-Chief
Senior Naomi Segel is Co-Editor-in-Chief and 4-year staff member on the Foreword. She plays on the Allderdice girl’s basketball team. Outside of school, she is a leader in GirlGov and other equity initiatives. In her free time, she can be found listening to Taylor Swift, watching football, and talking to friends.

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