October 1, 2019

Michele Pilon: Fresh Start Program Offers Vital Services and Connection for Transylvania County Residents Dealing With Mental Health Conditions

By Michele Pilon
Chief Executive Officer, Transylvania Regional Hospital

Michele Pilon


We’re amazed by so many aspects of 21st century medical care – from technology to life-changing medications and revolutionary discoveries – but our attitudes about mental health need to catch up. Mental health services, or behavioral healthcare, is a critical part of the work every hospital does, including Transylvania Regional Hospital (TRH).

Unfortunately, across our country and here in Western North Carolina, our communities’ need for mental health services far exceeds the treatment services available, and this has helped contribute to a mental health crisis. According to the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI), almost 1 in 5 adults are living with mental illness, which translates to more than 46.5 million people. Mental health conditions are strongly linked to suicide and substance abuse, and nearly one fifth of Americans suffer with some type of anxiety disorder.

Rural areas, such as the communities that make up Transylvania County and our neighboring counties, face additional challenges: a shortage of mental health service providers, from psychologists to social workers, as well as access issues for patients. If you don’t have a vehicle or access to a robust public transportation system, you can’t physically reach services.

TRH has an exemplary outpatient behavioral health program that I want to highlight this month, and that community members should be aware of. Whether you’re searching for services for yourself or a loved one, it’s important that we learn to talk openly about both mental health struggles and diagnoses.

“The ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality around mental health stubbornly hangs on in our culture, and getting help can still be considered taboo,” says April Pryor, MS, LPC, and Program Coordinator for the Fresh Start Behavioral Health Structured Outpatient Program, “meaning that a mental health diagnosis isn’t a ‘casserole disease’.” If you have a knee replacement or get a cancer diagnosis, people rally around the patient; when someone struggles with mental illness, this often isn’t the case.”

Fresh Start began in 2007 and it serves adults and seniors who have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, such as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or depression. “We hear praise from our participants, who now range in age from about 56 to 82, because they appreciate that their fellow group members are dealing with shared life experiences that occur in this stage of life, like the loss of a spouse, living with a chronic illness, and loneliness,” said Pryor. Another group served by the program is patients with mild to moderate dementia. Fresh Start specializes in treating patients who don’t require an inpatient treatment experience, or who are transitioning from being in inpatient treatment.

“We have an outstanding clinical team and offer all the services these patients need under one roof, including medication management,” notes Pryor, citing psychiatrist and Medical Director Dr. C. Britt Peterson, a Licensed Professional Counselor, and a Licensed Social Worker as team members. My work involves community outreach, education, and conducting initial assessments.”

Fresh Start offers two 2-hour group sessions daily – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. A third 45-minute-long daily group program helps participants build cognition skills. Qualifying patients in the Brevard and Hendersonville areas can also get transportation to sessions.

“Our sessions focus on personal goal setting, positive thoughts, how self-talk and actions influence one’s emotions, and building a wide range of useful skills,” says Pryor. “These include identifying your emotions and setting realistic goals to managing stress and anger, coping with loss, and becoming more aware about the role of substances in your health.”

Pryor shares that as Fresh Start patients learn to face how depression has affected their lives, for example, they start opening up the lines of communication within their families and long-strained relationships can improve. She notes that another key message is that, no matter what condition they’re dealing with, “you are not your diagnosis.”

Pryor adds that once patients graduate from Fresh Start, they’re not alone. “We connect them with community resources they can take advantage of after the program ends.”

Pryor is proud that TRH also partners with the local NAMI chapter to offer the 12-session Family-To-Family program, which educates and offers opportunities to connect for the family members and caregivers of those with mental health conditions.

“Our approach and goal is not to “fix” our patients, but to arm them with practical, life-enhancing tools they can have forever,” concludes Pryor.

April Pryor is an impressive example of our committed caregivers at TRH. The innovative Fresh Start program is now well-respected and deeply embedded in our community. If we can help our neighbors facing mental health issues become more resilient, our community’s overall health will be more robust.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Fresh Start program or if you have any questions, please call the Fresh Start office at 828-862-6393.

I couldn’t let October come and go without acknowledging Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In my July article, I highlighted our Automated Whole Breast Ultrasound (ABUS) and our 3D mammography capability, two vital breast cancer screening tools. Everyone here at TRH is fully invested in providing you with the most advanced breast cancer screenings and preventive education, as well as superior comprehensive treatment for those diagnosed with breast cancer, including our Brevard Cancer Infusion Center. We salute all those who are survivors, and honor those lost to breast cancer.

Transylvania Regional Hospital

Michele Pilon, MS, BSN, RN, NE-BC, is Chief Executive Officer and Chief Nursing Officer of Transylvania Regional Hospital. Her diverse professional experience includes service as a bedside nurse and over a decade as a leader at healthcare institutions in Virginia, Florida and North Carolina. Ms. Pilon earned a Bachelor’s in Nursing from Ohio’s University of Akron and a Masters in Health Services Administration from the University of St. Francis in Illinois; she is also a Board-Certified Nursing Executive.