Nicholas Pappas, at home in North Chesterfield, was a member of the county's Community Services Board for nine years.
Nicholas Pappas had nowhere else to turn.
Unemployed and on the verge of homelessness, feeling isolated and despondent and overcome with depression and anxiety, Pappas spent what little money he had left to see a local psychiatrist.
During his second visit, the psychiatrist said he couldn’t help and handed Pappas a card containing the phone number for Chesterfield’s Department of Mental Health Support Services.
Twelve years later, Pappas remains convinced it was a life-saving referral.
“I probably wouldn’t be here today without the county services,” he said. “I couldn’t afford health insurance. At that moment, I was completely alone. My family couldn’t deal with the burden anymore, as they saw me, and I had nobody else to talk to except for this therapist I saw every single week. When I say I wouldn’t have survived, she was literally the only person I had to talk to.”
Pappas still clearly remembers the date of his initial appointment – May 23, 2011 – and the name of the Mental Health Support Services clinician assigned to his case: Celeste Minar.
“I don’t know if they were there or not, but I felt like I saw tears in her eyes as I told my story. For the first time, I felt like I was talking to somebody who cared and that touched me,” he added. “It meant everything to talk to someone who I felt genuinely cared.”
Encouraged to get out of the house and connect with others who were being treated for mental health issues, Pappas began regularly participating in Friends for Recovery, a peer-run program led by people who had similar experiences and understood what he was going through.
He found his voice and a sense of purpose there, eventually becoming a group leader. He made new friends and also met his first romantic partner at age 50. They’re still together today.
Becoming comfortable sharing his experiences publicly “was a major turning point for someone like me who was afraid to speak or be around other people,” Pappas said. “I always thought my mental illness was a liability. Then I began to look at it differently: that maybe these experiences have shaped me in a way so I can give back to other people. This doesn’t have to be a negative in my life, I can turn it into something else. Maybe I can find a purpose in helping others with similar experiences.”
Supervisor Jim Holland appointed Pappas to represent the Dale District on the Community Services Board (CSB), which provides administrative and policy oversight for Mental Health Support Services. He led its public relations committee and was a member of the housing committee before being selected as vice chair, then served as chair through the end of his nine-year tenure.
“Nick is a true success story,” said Kelly Fried, executive director of the Chesterfield CSB. “He was so effective as a member of our board and board chair because he is so sincere and genuine. He tells a wonderful story that people appreciate.”
While Pappas had to wait about six weeks for his first appointment with a Chesterfield clinician back in 2011, CSBs across Virginia have since changed their service model to accommodate same-day access for clients.
Instead of being put on a waiting list, a client can now walk into Mental Health Support Services and check in with a receptionist, then meet with an intake coordinator before receiving an initial clinical assessment and a referral for additional services at a later date.
Same-day access is one of nine core services provided by all Virginia CSBs as part of a statewide initiative known as STEP-VA. Chesterfield was selected to administer same-day access as a pilot program when the state launched it eight years ago.
“You’re not going to get same-day access from a private provider. There are long waiting times for service that sometimes results in individuals requiring hospitalization,” Fried added.
Chesterfield also offers a holistic array of wraparound services, including: assignment to a case manager; links to employment and psychosocial day programs; psychiatric services including medication management; outpatient and substance use treatment; assertive community treatment; transportation; and a permanent supportive housing program for people who are either on the verge of homelessness or are in a hospital receiving treatment and have nowhere to go once they are discharged.
Perhaps most importantly for people like Pappas who don’t have health insurance and can’t afford to see a psychiatrist in private practice, the county does not turn anyone away for the inability to pay. Based on their income and family size, some clients can receive mental health services for as little as $1.
“For individuals with serious mental illness or those with little resources," Fried said, "we are their safety net."