When Natalia* was first contacted by Miriam B., a mental health specialist with VNSNY’s PEARLS team, she was suffering from depression and overwhelming anxiety so severe she refused to leave her apartment. Over the course of a number of one-on-one sessions, Miriam helped Natalia identify concrete problems contributing to her condition and brainstorm practical ways to address them. Several months later, Natalia goes outside by herself on a daily basis, and meditates and does yoga to cope with her anxiety. “I’ve learned to take things in stride,” she says.
“Not only has Natalia developed skills for resolving today’s challenges,” adds Miriam, “but PEARLS has prepared her for future challenges as well.”
VNSNY’s PEARLS program is part of an innovative, citywide initiative with New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The program’s goal is to provide screening and treatment for New Yorkers aged 65 and older suffering from depression. To date, VNSNY’s three outreach teams, two in Queens and another in Manhattan, have treated over 100 individuals, including many whose depression had rendered them virtually homebound.
The core of the program involves an evidence-based cognitive-behavioral therapy, administered by mental health specialists from VNSNY’s Community Mental Health Services (CHMS) division. Each senior in the program receives six in-home visits from a clinician, who then follows up with regular monthly phone calls. During the sessions, therapist and patient create a list of specific changes the patient would like to make in his or her daily life, then work to develop solutions, one item at a time.
For one patient, a man in his early 80s whose isolation had given rise to suicidal thoughts, these included rehearsing and then actually placing phone calls to an old friend, developing a plan to drive himself to church, and putting self-affirming notes around his apartment to counter the panic attacks he’d been experiencing. Today, he’s calling friends regularly and attending church every Sunday. Meanwhile, his score on a commonly used screening questionnaire has gone from “moderate depression” to “no depression.”
Connecting patients with regular medical care is another element of the program. “When people’s physical issues are addressed, they also feel better psychologically,” explains Annmarie Franco, PEARLS Program Manager for VNSNY. “Research shows that people treated with this approach have lower hospitalization rates and greater health-related improvement in quality of life compared to those who don’t get treatment.”
VNSNY’s CMHS division often gets referrals from local senior centers and other community organizations. But individuals can be referred for a free in-home depression screening by anyone, including themselves, a nurse, or a friend or family member. “We have the capacity to treat even more people,” notes Annmarie, “so we want to spread the word as much as possible about this highly effective program.”
* The patient’s name has been changed for privacy.
VNSNY’s PEARLS program operates in Queens (Astoria, Long Island City, Flushing, College Point, Jamaica, St. Albans, and South Ozone Park), as well as Manhattan (the Upper West Side, Upper East Side, and Roosevelt Island).
If you know someone in these neighborhoods and would like to refer them to the VNSNY PEARLS program for screening, call 718-888-6884.