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CEO Lisa Zappia is pictured at the Prestera Wayne Karen Yost Center on Aug. 6 in Wayne County.

HUNTINGTON — Prestera Center for Mental Health Services was recently given the largest grant award in the organization’s history — $5 million for up to two years to improve comprehensive community behavioral health care.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, announced the award in September.

The purpose of this funding is to support and restore the delivery of clinical services that were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and to effectively address the needs of adults, children and families with severe emotional problems, severe mental illness or both substance use and mental health problems.

The targeted counties in West Virginia are Cabell, Mason, Lincoln, Wayne, Kanawha, Putnam, Boone and Clay, where COVID-19 has exacerbated mental illness, stigma, overdose and social determinants of health. An additional 1,750 adults, children and families will be served through the grant funding.

Lisa Zappia, Prestera Center president and CEO, said this funding will allow Prestera to prepare for a post-COVID-19 health care environment where clients aren’t bound to office visits but can receive care in other ways through telehealth and other mobile outpatient centers.

“We’re creatures of habit, right, and think people have gotten used to not leaving their home as much, so they are ordering what they need offline; they are seeking services and seeing primary care physicians via telehealth on their phones,” said Zappia. “That’s going to be closer to our new normal after the pandemic is under control.”

New services include following up 24 to 48 hours after a crisis or suicide call by employing outreach workers to provide community-based follow-up. Community outreach efforts will promote mental health awareness and decrease stigma.

A “mental health first aid” expert will be hired to train community members how to help others with mental health difficulties. The website will be redesigned and optimized. Triage workers will be added to work evenings and weekends on the 24-hour Prestera website chat robot.

Additional support will be available for assisting with criminal justice crisis referrals. New locations for rural telehealth services will be planned and implemented.

Additionally, this funding will be used to recover the workforce lost due to COVID-19 by adding staff recruiters to restore pre-pandemic service capacity and implementing an inclusive payroll and human resources system across Prestera Center. Master’s level therapists and licensed practical nurses will be hired.

Prestera currently employs approximately 600 individuals and has approximately 100 open positions, Zappia said.

Other positions will be added through grant funding, and she does not anticipate having to eliminate any added positions after the grant period concludes.

Retention efforts will expand for existing staff to include health and wellness initiatives and stipends. Prestera’s clients will experience improved mental health functioning, decrease substance use and utilize a recovery application built for smartphones.

These improvements and activities will be measured by an independent, outside contractor that will evaluate efficiency, effectiveness, sustainability and customer satisfaction.

Luke Creasy is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @LukeCreasy or reach him by phone at 304-526-2800.

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