Petersburg Mental Health Services director Susan Ohmer (Photo courtesy of Susan Ohmer)

A regional health care provider will be taking over mental health counseling in Petersburg next month. The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium has offered to hire employees from Petersburg Mental Health Services and will offer psychiatric emergency care and other services under a new name, Mountainside Behavioral Health. It doesn’t mean an end to the local organization that’s been helping clients since 1993.

Petersburg Mental Health sent out letters to clients this month and announced the change on its website and social media. The non-profit’s founder and director Susan Ohmer said the decision was forced by funding reductions at multiple levels

“We knew it was coming,” Ohmer said. “We’ve held on longer than most independent non-profit agencies that run comprehensive behavioral health services. If we’re not the last one, we’re almost the last one in Alaska.”

For most of its existence, Mental Health received funding from the local municipality, annual payments totaling as much as 85,000 dollars for its counseling work and substance abuse treatment. The borough assembly zeroed that support out by 2017 and the non-profit’s board agreed to dip into savings to cover expenses. Ohmer says the organization also saw the end of a 100,000 dollar grant in 2020 and can no longer afford to provide treatment. Mental Health looked for a larger health care provider that could take over, considering both the Petersburg Medical Center and the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.

Mark Walker, SEARHC’s director of behavioral health said it made sense for regional provider to take on that role.

“Susan founded and developed an outstanding behavioral health organization that’s not only valued in Petersburg but well respected throughout the state,” Walker said. “So SEARHC was very pleased to be able to work with Susan to help continue this legacy of service to the Petersburg community.”

SEARHC has pledged to hire all the Petersburg Mental Health employees who wish to continue working there. Walker said they are also planning to expand and will be recruiting for an additional counselor and clinical supervisor.

“Except for the expansion of the number of clinical positions we expect to be providing the same level of service that Petersburg Mental Health had been providing,” he said.

Clients will continue with the same provider and come to the same office as SEARHC will continue to lease the offices in the Petersburg Mental Health building on Fram Street.

Mental Health’s Ohmer explained its not a merger, she’s not retiring and her non-profit will continue on in some form.

“So they’re taking over the services and that responsibility and using our staff as a way to maintain stability and then grow from there,” Ohmer said. “But otherwise Petersburg Mental Health will remain an organization that’s active in the community. We’re just not sure exactly what that looks like yet since for the last year we’ve been obviously occupied with world events and responding to that as well as wanting to make sure that this goes well. So my focus has been on, I wanted to make sure that everyone had a job and clients were going to get served and I had hoped that they could be served in the same place.”

It’s a difficult decision for Ohmer. She started the mental health center in 1993, her first job after graduating from college. People needing mental health counseling relied on itinerant services before that.

“And I arrived learning as much as anyone could as a new graduate,” she said. “And I just have been blessed with amazing people to work with and an amazing team and just being able to do good in the community that I love and that I grew up with was the thing I wanted to do with my life.”

In a letter to clients Ohmer remembers starting out with a part time receptionist and one room at the local hospital. Petersburg Mental Health will continue on in a smaller office in its building and Ohmer said she and the board will be talking over the upcoming year about the future of that non-profit. SEARHC takes over April 1st.