Against the odds: Health provider in Altoona helps clients triumph over mental illness

Someone with a mental illness already has the odds stacked against them. Add in an encounter with the law and those odds climb even higher.

Helping those dealing with both is the Altoona-based Peerstar LLC.

Peerstar, a mental-health recovery support service started in 2009, provides support for those suffering from mental illness and/or a substance-abuse disorder from those who have dealt with similar setbacks themselves, but found success, said Elissa Gies, vice president of operations.

The for-profit mental health provider also offers forensic peer support services for those who, in addition to mental illness, have had involvement with the criminal justice system.

Peerstar worked with Yale University School of Medicine to develop the specialized forensic peer support program used in the Blair, Cambria, Somerset, Clearfield, Jefferson and Franklin County prisons and surrounding communities, Peerstar Director of Forensic Programs and co-founder James Kimmel Jr. said in an email.

Peerstar recently contracted to bring the forensic peer support program to Delaware County, Kimmel said.

In Blair and Cambria, where in-jail programming was first introduced, Peerstar donated the time of forensic peer specialists to the jails, Kimmel said.

Peerstar CEO and co-founder clinical psychologist Dr. Larry Nulton said more and more people suffering from mental illnesses are showing up in the criminal justice system.

“We’re seeing more and more severely mentally ill individuals infiltrating the system as the more restrictive treatment alternatives are less available, such as state hospitals,” he said.

Pennsylvania, however, is at the forefront of recognizing a need for alternative treatment, he said.

The people Peerstar is trying to help are those unjustly prosecuted for their mental illness, Nulton added.

“Sometimes the crime is really a result of their mental illness, and for those people, it is sad when you are trying to help them,” he said. “Peer support is just one of those services that can help them navigate, stay out of prison, have a connection or have someone to call.”

Preliminary Peerstar data from the first 29 months indicate the forensic program has reduced the one-year rate of those returning to jail to an average of 25.8 percent, an overall reduction in the expected rate of nearly 60 percent, Kimmel said.

The forensic peer specialists help them plan for the future and navigate support systems, including what Nulton called “natural supports.”

“Your mother, your sister or your preacher,” he said. “We try to teach individuals that natural supports are much better for your overall health and wellness. Peers also teach them to self-advocate, which is very difficult for someone with severe mental illness to do.”

Lori Schultz, forensic peer specialist, said she has found that mental health and drug and alcohol abuse plays a role in crimes, she said.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, ‘You know, if I’d have just stayed on my medicine, I wouldn’t have been doing this,’ or ‘If I’d have gotten medicine, I wouldn’t be substituting alcohol and drugs to compensate for my mental health problems,’ so we find that mental health issues and substance abuse does go hand and hand,” Schultz said.

“The goal of the program,” she added, “is to get them to understand their mental health issues and understand how it plays a role in their criminal history and/or addiction so that we can link them with services they needed to get to hopefully keep them out of the prisons again.”

Nulton said Peerstar isn’t just helping those currently struggling, but is making a difference, as an employer of peer specialists.

“They weren’t employed, some of them for nearly 10 years. They had difficulties holding a job and now here they are three years later with a full-time job, not on disability or medical assistance,” he said. “And, they are getting paid a real paycheck with benefits and vacation, something they’ve never had in their past.”

Schultz would like people to know that mental health illness or drug and alcohol abuse are often factors in someone landing in jail.

“I’ve seen that these folks can change,” she said. “The majority of them want the help and they’re very honest about their background, honest about their history, where they’ve come from, so, I mean, I think we can help them. It’s just it takes a little bit of time.”

Peerstar continues to work with Yale and other universities.

In fact, Yale is adopting some of Peerstar’s forensic peer support methods such as the Nonjustice System, a nine-step role-playing tool to help people overcome a desire for revenge, Kimmel said. The system is available at

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Staff writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.