by Matthew Delaney
The holiday season is traditionally a time for people to come together and rejoice with loved ones. But for some, this time of year serves as a stark reminder of how lonely and despondent everyday life may be.
Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services aids those struggling to find their holiday cheer with a 24/7 CrisisLink phone and text line that offers confidential and supportive outreach to the community at large.
Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, known as PRS, has been a staple in Northern Virginia since the early 1960s. Originally conceived by founder Vera Mellen to assist deinstitutionalized hospital patients with mental disabilities, the organization provided innovative care for their new clients by identifying needs for housing, transportation and a sense of belonging within the world around them.
Government funding legitimized Mellen’s call to action and over the next 30 years her passion for the well-being of intellectually impaired residents helped make their lives exponentially better with vocational, educational and recreational services to over 400 individuals.
In 1998 Mellen stepped down and passed the torch to current president and CEO of PRS, Wendy Gradison, who has ensured the core of the organization remains unblemished.
“We talk about empowering change, one connection at a time,” Gradison says in an e-mail.
“I have worked closely with our Board and our Leadership Team to carry on the foundational principles on which PRS was created while serving more people in need. For our 53 year history, PRS has held true to those core values of person-centered, flexible, individualized, community-based skill training and supports for persons in recovery.”
Even as Gradison keeps an eye on the past, she continues to look toward the future. PRS has become more inclusive by assisting people with behavioral and emotional disabilities in addition those with mental illness. Furthermore, the organization dove head-first into the digital age by creating metric-based evaluation methods to sharpen how they assess their own treatment and attentiveness to client needs.
“PRS strives to be data-driven,” Gradison says. “[We’re] always a ‘work in progress’ and striving to improve in all aspects of the company.
“Thus, there is a cycle of continuous quality improvement. When our internal targets are not met, our teams explore what improvements are needed, implement and measure them.”
Along with new-age evaluation methods the organization has also upped its community outreach by providing the 24/7 phone and text line, CrisisLink.
Once its own entity that started in the 1960s as Northern Virginia Hotline and operated with a few volunteer operators out of a church basement, CrisisLink became an accredited call center in the 1990s and merged with PRS in 2014.
The two were a match made in heaven. CrisisLink brought a service and style of volunteering to PRS that the company hadn’t utilized, while PRS brought their strong management and stable funding to support CrisisLink’s initiatives.
Having a phone and text line available at all hours sweetened the deal even more for PRS, who now could have clients call in and reflect on their progression through programs or simply to air their grievances.
Offering perspective on both the big-picture goals of PRS and the experience of a volunteer is PRS board member, CrisisLink trainer and volunteer operator Liz Barnes.
“We take calls no matter who you are or what your background is,” Barnes says. “We’ve had clients and callers who have been with us for 20 – 30 years who call back – and call daily – for our support.”
Although roughly 80 percent of the 24,000 annual calls aren’t dire emergencies, the volunteers are still equipped with Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) and are comfortable discussing issues revolving around mental disabilities, sexual assault, domestic violence and problems specific to LGBTQIA+ and veteran callers.
Additional programs include CareRing, where home-bound individuals receive a daily check-in call and opening the text line in an effort to combat teen suicide. And while volunteers are there to support distressed callers, they aren’t soliciting solutions.
“We’re not there to solve their problems” Barnes adds. “We’re there to be with them in their crisis or issue that they’re having, and to provide reflective listening.”
The holidays bring their own stressors to the phone lines. Positives such as decreased suicides are countered by increased calls on family anxiety and heightened alcoholism.
Still, the work never ends as there is always someone who will dial the hotline looking for consoling words on the other end. Luckily, Barnes and other volunteers are all there to assist those in need.
“It’s such an honor to be on the hotline with an individual in crisis and that they’re opening themselves up to you,” Barnes says. “It has changed me as a human being [and] has changed how I interact not just with my family, but holistically as a person.”