Staying Connected

Peace River Center navigates the ‘new normal’ through pandemic.


The fear and anxiety caused by COVID-19 has become universal, causing many to feel isolated, lonely, stressed and anxious. Throughout the country, healthcare practitioners are adapting to the changing times and finding ways to help people deal with the added stress.

At Peace River Center, one of the largest behavioral health agencies in Florida with 27 locations and 30 programs, work has been ongoing since the coronavirus made inroads into the United States and Florida back in March. 

Ileana Kniss, director of community relations and development, says the center is actively working to stay in touch with its clients during social distancing through appointments and community outreach. 

To give clients access to outpatient care, Kniss, who joined the center in April 2017, says the agency operates through a telehealth system. Through the Access to Care department and telehealth, staff members are able to help clients with issues regarding telehealth.

“Our 24-hour facilities also remain fully operational throughout COVID-19. PRC provides several inpatient facilities and services that continue to provide housing and emergency psychiatric care to our community,” says Kniss. 

Among those PRC facilities are two domestic violence shelters, one in Lakeland and one in Sebring; two crisis stabilization units, one in Lakeland, one in Bartow; a short-term adult residential treatment center; two group homes; and apartments. 

To help get rapid intervention to individuals in need, the center also operates a 24-hour Mobile Crisis Response Team and hotline, which provides immediate intervention to individuals in need. 

“This Crisis line accepts calls to provide emotional support, crisis prevention and intervention to individuals experiencing heightened mental health situations or struggling with urges to use drugs and or alcohol,” says Kniss. 

While the risk of exposure to COVID-19 remains, according to center administration, all staff members are equipped with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and PPE are given to clients with appointments with additional distancing protocols in place. There is also telehealth available in designated office space.

“Our staff members transitioned to telehealth and telephone calls to keep clients engaged. Our Club SUCCESS staff members provide multiple virtual engagement opportunities each day so members can stay engaged,” Kniss says. 

Center administration says the Adult Case Management and Forensics programs have frequent calls related to client check-ins and assistance with recovery goals.

The Psychosocial Rehabilitation Services (PSR) have been engaging clients via telehealth, working on coping skills and symptom management. 

The center has been using “Reward Boxes” and “Coping Skills Boxes” to keep children and adolescents focused on their therapies.

Other outreach initiatives include a Mobile Crisis Response Team community awareness campaign and a Victim Services team for community outreach via phone support and in-person (with PPE) as needed. The center says their domestic violence and sexual assault hotlines and shelters have remained operational. 

“We have experienced a spike in calls since the Safer at Home order was put into place, so our advocates are working with individuals on safety planning,” Kniss explains. 

Other avenues of outreach include:

  • Porch Calls, created by staff to engage children and families. After telehealth appointments, Kniss says Porch Calls were developed to maintain contact and as “rewards for improvements.” They allow therapists and case managers to conduct a community-based, in-person visits using PPE and social distancing. 
  • The Community Action Treatment Team. This is a referral-based program providing family-centered, individualized treatment according to the strengths and needs of each youth in a particular family. The center says the goal is “to support and sustain the client in his/her family system, or the least restrictive and most clinically appropriate environment.” Family commitment and participation are essential and expected for the success of the services.
  • The Mobile Crisis Response Team. Kniss says this team responds to community-based calls from individuals experiencing emotional distress. Trained staff members are skilled in providing immediate intervention, with the intent of de-escalating a situation from a Baker Act. Kniss says if there is still a need for the Baker Act, the team works with law enforcement “to take an individual to secure facilities or other community resources.”

Since the pandemic began, Kniss says she’s seen an increase in people needing help coping with stress, anxiety or depression. Likewise, she says calls to the center’s Mobile Crisis Response Team and Domestic Violence line also have increased. 

Some of those calls are distressed parents learning to work at home while providing full-time care for their children.  

“Some have lost jobs, which has increased tensions and intensity of abuse. We have also seen an increase in relapse of individuals who are seeking treatment for a substance use disorder,” she explains.

Kniss says at the onset of all the changes, some clients were hesitant about using telehealth, but as they saw the benefits of telehealth, appointments have increased. “Some clients have found that being at home and having their companion animals with them or just being in their own home has helped them be more engaged and active in therapy,” Kniss adds. “Sometimes transportation is a barrier to accessing services. The use of telehealth has in some cases removed that barrier.”

Kniss says that during these difficult times, it’s important that people reach out for help and talk to friends and family. She also suggests calling the PRC’s Crisis Line, (863) 519-3744. 

“We know this current situation is extremely challenging, but we are here to help current and future clients.”  

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