By Benjamin Joe
There are many kinds of people in Niagara County, but not all of them have it as easy as others. For some, even every day tasks are a difficulty.
That’s where the ACT team of Spectrum Health and Human Services comes in. ACT is an acronym for assertive community treatment and while it’s been in Erie County for 16 years, the team is just a month away from their first anniversary in Niagara County.
Bruce Nesbit, CEO and president of Spectrum, describes ACT as a practice that offers treatment, rehabilitation and support services for individuals that have been diagnosed with severe mental health diagnoses and for whom traditional treatment has not been effective.
“These are people who have not been able to be engaged in traditional outpatient mental health clinics,” he said.
“We’re a little bit different,” said Shana House, one of the ACT team in Niagara County. “It seems that the ACT team model is getting to be a little more popular opposed to traditional clinic just, because for a lot of people it just doesn’t work.”
“One of the biggest things establishing a presence here, is we had to do a lot of educating with other providers in the area about what ACT is,” Funk said. “What exactly we do, and what we don’t do, and just making the connections with other providers so that way we can collaborate more.”
The program is for people with very severe mental health diagnoses. The barriers for treatment to take hold and help these individuals are not easy. Many of them cannot seem to make appointments, have no phone for therapists and social workers to get ahold of them with, and some are even homeless with no address.
“We start off with our morning meeting,” House explained. “We have 48 people as our cap, so we have 48 people who we see every week unless something is going on. We review each person, sometimes briefly, like, ‘Hey, they’re doing OK, they’re scheduled for this day.’ If we have seen them, we go over what happened, what the plan is for the next time we see them, what we’re working on. From there, really, we just go out and try to find them.”
“Sometimes we have to get creative about where we try to find people,” Funk said. “Sometimes we go over to food pantries if we know they go regularly or other locations. … One time we had to try and find a client at a graveyard.”
How the ACT team came to be in Niagara County started when the state expanded funding, Nesbit said. There had been a long-standing ACT clinic in Erie, which services 96 individuals, but it wasn’t until January 2018 that one was established in Niagara County.
“When the state made funding available to Niagara County upon application, Laura Kelemen, director of community services, saw a need to establish an ACT program in Niagara County,” Nesbit said. “There were numerous individuals for whom the traditional services in the community had not been effective in helping them to stabilize their lives and she saw the ACT program would provide a real resource for folks within Niagara County.”
“So, she applied for the ACT program funding and then reached out to Spectrum. We have a very good reputation in Erie County for our services, including our ACT program, and (she) invited us to provide that programing in Niagara County and of course, we were delighted to have that opportunity.”
The ACT program helps its clients on a variety of levels, team members said.
“Our biggest goal is to reintegrate people back into the community,” House said. “Because a lot of times it’s just that struggle to manage your daily life. A lot of our clients don’t really want to hear that, so we usually tell them what we can offer.”
Services the ACT team can help with are medication and counseling, housing, and even vocational help. According to the team members, even clients who did not initially want to work with them, have turned full circle in their appraisal and now ask if they can continue in the program. So, there’s a lot of optimism at Spectrum’s offices, but it’s not easy.
“We’re a new program, so we’re automatically the miracle workers. They (family members) seem to think we’re here, so why aren’t they cured or fixed,” House said. “It’s a lot of educating families on what mental illness is.”
“I’m the family specialist,” Funk said. “So, I also work with other family members, … and help the family member and the client develop and maintain a positive relationship, because it’s part of the transition into the community. People who have family involvement have a much better prognosis compared to people who don’t.”
Despite difficulties, for those who’ve fallen through the cracks of the system, the ACT team may be the best bet.
“Working with the people we work with, I think we have a very passionate team,” said Testa, team leader of ACT. “Everybody’s very genuine. You can’t be in this line of work if you don’t genuinely care about people.”