Psychiatric Nurses Balance Their Own Mental Health

Hendricks travels all across the borough to “bring the hospital” to her patient’s homes. Photo Credit: VNS Health

By Iryna Shkurhan | [email protected] 

Referred to by many as the backbone of healthcare, nurses are indispensable to the public health system and the wellness of patients. 

Those who work in the mental health field face a different set of challenges than general practice nurses who work primarily with patients experiencing physical ailments. For National Nurses Month in May, the Queens Ledger spoke to two nurses working in the mental health field outside of a hospital setting. 

Hycolyn Chamberlain is a Registered Nurse (RN) in the PROS Program at Transitional Services for New York (TSINY). The clients she works with have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness (SMI) such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or severe depression and are now in the process of recovery and rehabilitation. 

In 2021, there were 14.1 million adults in the U.S living with a SMI, approximately 5.5 percent, but only 9.1 million received mental health treatment in the past year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

“Sometimes what clients would say to you, as a nurse, they will not say to their psychiatrist, and they will not say to their social worker,” said Chamberlain. “So there’s this trust that they have with wanting to share what’s really going on with them and ask for ideas as to how they can live a better life.”

Clients in the outpatient PROS program are in stable condition and are learning how to carry on with their lives despite their diagnosis. The program assists them with overcoming barriers to education, housing, employment and socialization through daily, or weekly, visits to the Jamaica location.  

Recently the mental health field received funding from both city and state officials in New York following an increased awareness of the distress that people from all walks of life are facing, especially after the pandemic. 

In February, Governor Kathy Hochul announced a $1 billion investment in improving mental health treatment across the state. The plan included increasing the capacity of both inpatient and outpatient psychiatric facilities, while also expanding insurance coverage and creating additional units of supportive housing. 

The following month, Mayor Eric Adams announced a similar mental health initiative to invest $20 million to address the overdose crisis and specifically help people living with a serious mental illness. 

“Mental health is my passion. I really do enjoy doing what I do,” said Chamberlain, who works with people who are currently on medication for a SMI. 

On a given day she meets with 15-20 clients to administer medication, takes health assessments and runs labs. Once a week she also leads a medication group with a dozen clients where she talks about the dangers of mixing prescriptions with illicit substances and creates a space where patients can discuss the pros and cons of the medications that they are on. She reinforces the importance of taking medication consistently and what available treatment options are available.

“It’s not a cookie cutter situation, you have to treat all the clients as an individual. Mental illness is not the end of the road, there’s life beyond the diagnosis. It’s just a diagnosis,” said Chamberlain. “The clients can live fulfilling lives just like everybody else, with the proper support.”

Chamberlain immigrated from Jamaica 12 years ago and has resided in the St. Albans area since. For a period of time, she could not practice in the field while she waited to be certified. But in 2015 she passed the NCLEX exam, a national licensing exam to become an RN, and began her nursing career in the United States. 

After previously working at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, she knew that she wanted to work in the mental health field. She prefers her position now at TSINY due to the work-life balance it allows her, especially in a field that she says can be mentally draining at times. 

She finds that the traditional 9-5 work day model helps her create a work-life balance and find time for self care activities that benefit her own mental health such as reading, working out and listening to music. 

“They really look forward to seeing you every day,” said Chamberlain, acknowledging that her favorite part of the role is feeling appreciated by the clients. 

Collette Hendricks, a behavioral health nurse for VNS Health, also acknowledged that her favorite part of her job is receiving appreciation from her clients. 

“What I liked the most about it is building a relationship with them, and their families, in their own environment,” said Hendricks, who travels all across Queens to meet clients in their own home. “We kind of bring the hospital to them. They may not be able to get to a hospital, or they may not want to go to a hospital.”

On a typical day she will drive across Queens to see four to six clients in their homes anywhere from Far Rockaway to Astoria to Elmhurst. 

VNS Health is a nonprofit home and community-based health care organization that offers services such as home care, hospice care, behavioral health, caregiver support and community outreach. 

Hendricks is on the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team, which is made up of psychiatrists, social workers, substance abuse specialists, family specialists and both registered nurses and nurse practitioners. To get placed on an ACT team, you have had to be hospitalized in a psychiatric facility at least six times in the past known as “rapid cycling” in the mental health field. 

“So I’ve never really felt any negative results against being a nurse, if anything, it’s always been very positive,” said Hendricks who acknowledged that it doesn’t have to be Nurses Month for her to feel appreciated in the field. “My reward is seeing them at the hands like you know, getting a job, going to school or just not having any hospitalizations for a long time.”

“I’ve gone through a lot of loss with family and I think that directed me into that way of healing, ” said Hendricks who is currently completing a masters in mental health and wellness with an emphasis on grieving and loss. “I found ways to cope and process my way through it. And I just feel like a lot of people do not know how to process that.”

In the future she hopes to open up her own mental health and wellness center that will offer support for those managing grief through coping skill classes. Through her own experiences, she has learned to see grief as a process that can ultimately be rewarding on the other side.

“I definitely rely on anything that I learned on my journey and I’m grateful for all the wisdom that it has taught me. It really does assist me in my everyday job and in my everyday life.”

Mental Health Center Revamped in Woodside


The center was renamed following the five million dollar donation from the Cohen Foundation.

By Iryna Shkurhan | [email protected]

The Child Center of NY in Woodside was renamed the Cohen Family Wellness Center after a philanthropic couple donated five million dollars to fund holistic mental health services for youth. 

As a family-focused nonprofit, the center serves approximately 700 families in Queens every year through a range of programs that target a spectrum of mental health needs present in youth from birth to 24 years of age. Their cultural competency is reflected in clinicians that speak almost a dozen different languages to adequately serve all communities in Queens. 

“The Cohen Family Wellness Center is a place that promotes hope, growth, and empowerment for its residents—and our city’s children need a place exactly like it right now,” said Traci Donnelly, CEO of the Child Center, in a statement.The pandemic only exacerbated the struggles of young New Yorkers dealing with the most severe mental health challenges, and the Center is designed to fill that need.”

The Child Center of New York was founded in 1953 as a mental health counseling center in  Queens. Today, it serves nearly 43,000 children and their families across the city and on Long Island. The Woodside location is one of the center’s 70 community and school sites that provide services ranging from early childhood education, an intensive outpatient program and substance abuse treatment.

“The uniqueness about the center is that we have all these programs in one location,” said Abraham Santana, a therapist at Woodside location who previously worked as a school social worker prior to 2020. “I believe the most impact I’ve made was more with individual work with the families.”

One of the center’s success stories is Jonathan Molina, a 17-year-old and life-long Woodside resident who began treatment at the center in 2020 following a psychiatric hospitalization. He experienced anxiety that manifested in overly frequent trips to the bathroom that he says began to affect his quality of life. 

“I thought therapy was for people who are severe, and they needed it. But I came to realize that therapy is for people who just need a support system,” said Molina in a zoom interview with the Queens Ledger. 

Santana, Jonathan’s therapist for the past two years, recounted his experience with working with Molina to reframe anxious thoughts, develop coping strategies and ultimately reduce his anxiety-induced trips to the restroom. They went from meeting twice a week, to only once a month as Molina’s symptoms improved from receiving talk therapy and medication. 

“Whenever these big changes happen, I kind of tend to fall back to my original self ,just like freaking out or having second doubts about everything,” said Molina. “But I’ve always managed to come back. So each time it happens, I come back stronger, in a way because I’m more prepared and prepared to tackle these issues. So I feel like the hardest parts are just going away.”

Santana has a caseload of young clients that are working through symptoms of PTSD, ADHD, anxiety and depression. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, he also has a slew of clients that are experiencing bereavement following the loss of a family member. 

A family checks in to receive mental health services.

One in 200 children in the city lost a parent or caregiver to COVID, according to a statistical analysis conducted at the University of Pennsylvania. That is nearly double the rate across the country. The data also showed that Black, Hispanic and Asian children are three times more likely to lose a caregiver than their white peers. 

Molina says that one of the greatest benefits of the center is that they accept Medicaid, which makes mental health treatment accessible for him and his family. The center’s main source of funding is through the federal government, but donations like the one from the Cohen family and grants are also common. 

One of their main initiatives is Alternatives to Residential Treatment (ART) which approaches mental health treatment with a holistic approach. Family involvement, particularly with parents, is central to the center’s approach to treat youth in a comprehensive way. 

“Seventy years ago, The Child Center of NY started in the basement of a 99 cent store at the Big Six Towers, and thanks to this generous donation from the Cohen Family and the Amazin’ Mets Foundation, they will now be able to expand their reach and better serve our neighbors in their new facility,” said Council Member Julie Won, who represents Woodside, following the ribbon cutting ceremony on April 11. 

Currently there is no waitlist for any services that the center offers in a hybrid model. Clinicians at the center also speak ten different languages including Mandarin, Farsi, Spanish and Bengali.

“Two years, three years ago, I was very lost. And I wasn’t very focused on my life,” said Molina. “And right now I feel like I have a sense of what I want to do with my life.”

He will graduate from Civic Leadership Academy in Elmhurst this spring as the school’s valedictorian. Next fall, he will study psychology at Queens College where he was accepted into the Honor Program. Molina says his experience at the center inspired him to pursue a career in the psychology field.

“We’re trying to solve a lot of traumas from previous generations. We kind of want to have a clean slate. They don’t want to reflect a parent’s behaviors,” said Molina. “So a lot of people tend to go to therapy or go to places that will provide help for them, so that they can be better parents or be better people in general.”


Community is Therapy at Venture House

Members Sarah, Dave, Richard and Janet outside of the clubhouse.

By Iryna Shkurhan | [email protected]

Venture House stands unassuming on Hillside Ave in Jamaica, Queens with its yellow brick exterior and arched windows. 

To a passerby, there’s not enough to guess that a vibrant community, known as a clubhouse, dedicated to helping people with serious mental illness (SMI) find their place in society exists on the other side of the lofty teal door. 

Unlike other mental health service providers structured around a hierarchical model that puts psychiatrists at the top and patients all the way on the bottom, Venture House aims to give its members autonomy without skimping on support and resources. Members are heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the clubhouse, while also countering the isolation that can come with their diagnosis through friendship.

“We are not in the business of turning people away,” said David Plotka, the Program Director at the Queens location. Anyone over the age of eighteen diagnosed with a SMI — bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and severe depression — living in the five boroughs is welcome to become a member for life. 

Earlier this month, Mayor Eric Adams unveiled a mental health agenda that plans to invest $20 million in the expansion of mental health services such as overdose prevention and serious mental illness support. One key proponent of his plan is to expand clubhouse capacity across five boroughs. Currently there are 14 locations across the city and four in Queens. Venture House also has a second location in Staten Island.

The clubhouse model of psychosocial rehabilitation first sprouted in 1943 by a group of New Yorkers who were discharged from a psychiatric facility but wanted to sustain the mutual support they found in each other. In 1948, the first clubhouse, Fountain House, was opened in Manhattan and is still supporting members today. There are 320 clubhouses around the world in 30 countries that are accredited by Clubhouse International. 

One study found that eighty percent of people with mental illness are unemployed, despite around sixty percent wanting to work, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Employment rates also decrease with an increase in the severity of the mental illness. 

Since day one, Venture House’s employment strategy has focused on transitional employment — a part-time temporary work placement that lasts approximately six to nine months. For those with a checkered employment history or blank resume due to their psychiatric history, completing a temporary placement evokes a sense of accomplishment, without the pressure of holding it down forever. 

“It’s a little bit of a reframe, if you will. It’s not that you left a job, or maybe you couldn’t sustain the job after a year or nine months, it’s more like, congratulations, you finished the placement and that’s reason to celebrate,” said Plotka. “We want people to feel a sense of success and then maybe they’re looking for more permanent employment.”

Members attended a work readiness group where they discussed how to deal with issues that arise in the workplace.

Members are currently employed at UBS Arena, Citi Field, West End Tennis Club at Forest Hills, and Turn the Page bookstore in Bayside, among others. Earlier this month, Venture House also partnered with RDS, a courier service based in Long Island City, for more transitional employment positions for their members. 

“I had extensive work history and education. However, when you have a gap of ten years, it’s intimidating, and it’s embarrassing, there’s a lot of shame,” said Janet Perisa. “And Venture has helped me to not be ashamed.”

Natellie Philip, a St. Albans resident, and clubhouse member since 2015 completed a six month placement at Turn the Page bookstore in Bayside. Through a scholarship she learned about at the clubhouse, she also became certified as a Clinical Medical Assistant following a 6-month course at York College. 

But before members pursue employment in the real world, they are encouraged to participate in the clubhouse’s work-ordered day, which runs parallel to typical nine to five working hours. Members can choose to prepare lunch in the kitchen or answer phones at the front desk. Some give visitors tours of the facility and process intake data while others ensure its cleanliness. 

A healthy daily lunch is available for just a dollar. And at the member run coffee shop on the first floor, a cup of coffee goes for an affordable 35 cents. 

Staff at Venture House describe the clubhouse as “purposely understaffed” as part of the clubhouse model. While daily attendance averages at 80 members, there are only 18 paid staff members, many of whom are visually indistinguishable from members. This is part of the effort to make carrying out clubhouse responsibilities impossible without member involvement. 

“You’re hearing voices. That’s okay. We don’t care. You can slice a tomato. We’re making a salad,” said Juliet Douglas, Venture House CEO for the past six years.

Douglas, who has thirty years of experience in almost every corner of the mental health field, says that the freedom and lack of structure at Venture House can be startling for some newcomers. If individuals have a history of being institutionalized at psychiatric facilities, where restrictive structures are in place, it can be startling to be asked, “What do you want to do?” 

The International Standards for Clubhouse Programs states that “There are no agreements, contracts, schedules, or rules intended to enforce participation of members.”

“People can come just to socialize, because socialization in itself is a goal. So no one is forced to do anything, but we try to help them to understand that we need them to participate,” said Douglas.

Growing up in Flushing, Janet Perisa, 44, first began displaying signs of serious mental illness at age ten. After struggling to attend school regularly like her peers and running away from home, she was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for two months at 15 years old. 

Despite her struggles, she was able to obtain her GED and start attending CUNY City Tech to study fashion marketing at 22. Perisa thrived while pursuing her passion and is proud to say she made it on the Dean’s list. She went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in creative writing at The New School, where she wrote the fashion column for her school’s paper, all while holding down several jobs.

When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, Perisa says her dreams crashed alongside the stock market. Like many others who graduated into the recession, she struggled to find a job after college. This triggered her severe mental illness symptoms and she found herself in a partial hospitalization program. She describes the next decade as a hamster wheel of hospitalizations at psychiatric hospitals and stints at out-patient programs that were too rigid and induced a sense of loneliness.

Then someone told her about Venture House. 

Janet Perisa, a longterm member and new peer specialist at the Brooklyn location.

“We have freedom of choice to lead self directed lives,” said Perisa. “When you’re in the system, you’re oftentimes invalidated by the place.”

Initially she sought friendship from the clubhouse, but as she found her footing she discovered a sense of purpose in helping out other members by utilizing her strengths and experience. Eventually she was appointed to the Board of Directors in 2016, on which she served for seven years. 

This past February, Perisa was hired as a Peer Specialist at Venture House’s young adult supportive housing program in Brooklyn. She is the only member that has been hired on Venture House’s staff. 

While Venture House connects its members with psychiatrists and therapists, there are no clinical mental health treatments offered inside the clubhouse. 

“Our therapy is in creating community,” said Perisa. “We’re like this beautiful bouquet of personalities and we are all instrumental in making the clubhouse work.”

Fill the Form for Events, Advertisement or Business Listing