Commissioners Spark Talks Between Hospitals, Mark Mental Illness Awareness Month

Wyoming County commissioners (seated, from left) Tom Henry, Rick Wilbur, and Ernie King acknowledged May as Mental Illness Awareness Month in Wyoming County with (standing, from left) Tara Fox of Luzerne-Wyoming County Mental Health and Disabilities Services (MHDS), Donnie Nowland and Jessica Burke of the Burke Center, Ranee Smith and Cheryl Farkaly of MHDS, and Michael Hopkins of Children’s Service Center.

Photo and story by Rick Hiduk

(exclusive to readers)

In response to a scheduled closure of the Tyler Memorial Hospital ER on July 1, the Wyoming County commissioners on Tuesday reported that they have been very busy over the last week reaching out to regional hospitals to consider picking up operations in Tunkhannock. Additionally, they have been working with state lawmakers and local industry leaders to mobilize support of bringing in a new outfit to restore and maintain hospital services.

We immediately sent out a letter to every hospital in the area,” said commissioner chair Rick Wilbur, who noted that the commissioners have also been communicating with Commonwealth Health officials who have suggested that they would be willing to sell the facility. Among those who received the letters were Geisinger, Guthrie, University of Pittsburgh, Endless Mountains Health Systems, Barnes Kasson, Wayne Memorial, and Lehigh Valley.

We’re doing everything that we think we can,” said commissioner Tom Henry.

The ultimate goal is to get these other hospitals in touch with Commonwealth to negotiate,” Wilbur remarked. “We’re just helping things along.” So far, according to the meeting agenda, Geisinger was the first to express an interest, and the commissioners will meet with representatives in the coming week.

The concern of local citizens was evident with a record number tuning into the meeting via Zoom and phone.

Providers Gather for Mental Health Awareness

The pandemic proved to be both a challenge to mental health providers and an opportunity to find new ways to render services to the growing number of people who need them. Though facilities were forced to suspend in-person operations for months in 2020, the virtual world of therapy and counseling emerged and grew into a new service of it’s own.

I don’t think that anything can totally replace face-to-face,” said Michael Hopkins, president and CEO of Children’s Service Center, which operates locally from South Montrose. “But it has eliminated some of the challenges.”

Tele-Health has provided us with access to people who were not comfortable going to a therapist’s office,” Luzerne-Wyoming County Mental Health and Disabilities Services director Tara Fox added. “The state has realized that it is successful and is assessing that.”

Jessica Burke, executive director of the Burke Counseling Center in Tunkhannock Township agreed. Though the initial shutdowns created a disturbing disconnect between clients and counselors, Zoom and phone meetings helped to close that gap and provide a path for others to seek the services that they needed.

The stresses of the pandemic sadly increased the number of suicides, substance use disorders, and simple anxiety and/or depressive disorders, especially among young adults.

But the people reaching out are getting what they want,” Burke related. “We provide the initial contact and always offer to them to come in if they need to.”

Tele-Health helps clients to overcome issues like transportation, childcare, and work schedules. An hour-long video chat or telephone call can happen from almost anywhere. It has also provided an outlet for people who do not have adequate mental health services nearby or who are not satisfied with what is available to them. “We’re getting referrals from two and three hours away,” said Donnie Nowland, operations coordinator at the Burke Center. “And then some of those people make the two-hour drive for an in-person visit.”

Another advantage, Burke suggested, is that college students who participate in counseling during the summer can stay with the same therapist upon returning to school in the fall and not have to seek a new provider and go through the intake process again.

We’re lucky in the county to have so many caring people,” commissioner Henry said of the providers. Henry read the proclamation declaring May as Mental Health Awareness Month in Wyoming County.

Other Matters of Interest

The commissioners were cautiously optimistic to report on Tuesday that there were no reported drug overdoses in the county in March and April. In 2021, there were eight overdoses and two deaths reported during the same two-month period. “We’re hoping that this is not an anomaly,” commissioner Wilbur stated. “We don’t get good news on that front very often.”

While acknowledging that not every overdose is reported, Henry attributed the reduction to an increase in services and resources the county has been able to provide via significant grants in recent years targeted at the problem. He noted also that suicides are still an issue with which mental health officials are grappling.

The commissioners reported that a recent meeting between representatives from the Special Education department of the Hazelton Area School District, H.A.N.D.S. of Wyoming County, local school administrators, Rep. Karen Boback and the commissioners shed some additional light on the discontinuance of the Early Intervention program at the H.A.N.D.S. facility in Mehoopany Township.

It looks like we’re going to come to some sort of resolution,” said Wilbur. “It’s absolutely necessary for our children up there.” Those who are assessed as at-risk and needing the services are currently being bused to Dallas.

The commissioners recently met with the new owners of Tioga Terrace Apartments after tenants were given a month’s notice that their rents would increase by as much as 50 percent beginning June 1. “Many of them are elderly and can’t afford that,” Wilbur noted, adding that the commissioners are looking into alternative funding such as Section 8 and Covid Rental Relief as options.

They’re being very cooperative,” commissioner Ernie King said of the property owners.

A HOPE Recovery Celebration will be held on the courthouse lawn in Tunkhannock from 10 am to 1 pm with System of Care covering the cost of lunch for attendees. The event will feature speakers on recovery issues and exhibits by local providers. Ice cream will be available for purchase.

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