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Duluth counselor's bus brings mental wellness services to clients
Duluth News-Tribune - 6/7/2023
Jun. 7—DULUTH — Karen Sheldon is trying something different when it comes to approaching mental health and wellness access. Instead of bringing clients to her, she's taking her therapy services on the road with her new business, Seen and Heard Individual and Family Therapy — more succinctly known as SHIFT.
Sheldon offers mobile mental wellness sessions for youth, adults and families. She has a special interest in working with people who are deaf and hard of hearing, and worked as an American Sign Language interpreter before she became a licensed clinical counselor. Her new business operates from a converted bus that she can take to wherever clients are.
"Part of me feels like it's actually a really old idea. It feels like how health care used to look," Sheldon said. "So it's like coming back to seeing where the people are, what they need and showing up in that space. But it seems all new now."
Sheldon's main goal is to make mental health care accessible and approachable. She said the bus makes the experience feel more casual for many people, and it's also a place where she and her clients are on common ground.
"What I've found really incredible is that it really helps with building the relationship between myself and the family, myself and the kid because we're sort of on neutral territory," Sheldon said. "I'm in their space, in their world, but it's not in their home so it doesn't feel intrusive."
The bus, which includes a couple seats left from the bus' original interior, a hammock, beanbag chair and several cushions, lets the client sit where they are most comfortable. Since Sheldon specializes in children and family sessions, this is especially effective in getting youth to relax and open up during therapy.
Because she can drive the bus to wherever her clients are, she said it helps eliminate no-show appointments and makes the continuity of care more successful. It also takes away clients' need to take time off work or make arrangements for transportation to and from appointments.
She's hoping as the business grows and she establishes more clients, she can find spaces around Duluth and the Northland to park the bus and have scheduled clients in that area come to her.
"I want it to be accessible where people are at, so it really has a lot of potential and flexibility to go a lot of different ways," Sheldon said.
Sheldon's idea of SHIFT started during graduate school, but solidified during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I really wanted to be able to bring mental health to people who don't have as much access to it for whatever reason," Sheldon said. "It was already brewing, but it was definitely like, now is the time to do that."
She raised over $9,000 in three months from a Kickstarter campaign, which allowed her to purchase and renovate the bus — which she makes sure to clarify is not a van, which would add a "creep factor" to her business model.
She markets SHIFT with more of a mental wellness approach than mental health care, because everyone has ways they can improve their overall mental wellness. Sheldon will work with a client to set goals for what they want to achieve and how they will get there, whether it's one small problem or a bigger lifestyle change.
SHIFT operates with a private pay model. With this model, Sheldon said she's able to make the process of getting therapy a little easier for some people because they don't have to jump through the hoops of finding a place accepted by insurance, and she doesn't have to necessarily diagnose a problem in order to continue sessions. Mental health services can be covered by insurance when scheduled through Harvest Moon Mental Health Services.
"The idea of SHIFT providing pay-out-of-pocket services is to simplify the process of getting in and getting started, because when you're dealing with insurance, I have to define a problem — like anxiety, depression, all the things — but I need to have that label and a plan to move forward," Sheldon said. "Private pay means we don't have to do that. We can just get started and decide what the goals are together. Because there's a lot of people that fall in this gray area of needing support, but I don't necessarily think we need to say, 'You have depression.'"
Sheldon also hosts "conscious kids clubs," which are groups for various ages of children to get together and build life skills together. She offers the clubs as an alternative to school extracurricular activities, church youth groups and other organized programs. For example, younger children can work on things like making friends and building community, while older groups may work on learning tasks for adulthood like doing laundry, managing a budget or planning group activities and coordinating reservations.
"Many of the kids in today's world are really empowered in terms of what's going on in the world, following social media," Sheldon said. "They seem older than I was at that age. But that has happened without necessarily some of the other skill sets, like how do you make a good friend and how do you know that they're your friend? And even if they aren't your friend, how do you behave together and work cooperatively?"
While Sheldon already has several offerings from SHIFT, she's always interested in what the community wants, and is open to suggestions. This summer, to get the word out about her business and her advocacy for mental wellness, Sheldon will have pop-up events once a month outside Bent Paddle Brewing, where people can stop to talk to her to learn more about her services, talk about mental wellness in general, or even just have a vent session.
Sheldon said she's open to starting conversations about anything. The pop-ups are open to the public and cost a freewill donation of whatever amount the person feels their time was worth.
"One of the goals of SHIFT overall is this less-formal approach to therapy. Which isn't to say it's not actual therapy — it is — but I don't want it to feel so unapproachable to people, and right now in mental health the wait lists to see a clinician are like weeks and weeks and weeks," Sheldon said. "I'm the kind of person that when I want to talk to someone, I want to talk right now, today, so that's kind of the gap I want to serve."
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