Mental Health Spotlight: Dr. Tara Gunther

Mental Health providers may not be thanked often, but make no mistake, they're heroes. We sat down with Dr. Tara Gunther, the owner of Gunther Psychological Services, helping people with their behavioral health needs in the Greater Pittsburgh Area.

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Mental Health providers may not be thanked often, portrayed in movies as superhuman or wear capes to work but make no mistake, they’re heroes.

This is our effort to do a little for them and recognize the group of professionals that do so much for us.

To all the mental health providers out there, thank you.

Dr. Gunther is the owner of Gunther Psychological Services helping people with their behavioral health needs in the Greater Pittsburgh Area.

While working at Truman Medical Centers and Allegheny Health Networks, one of your objectives was integrating new behavioral health services into a traditional healthcare delivery model. Did you run into any challenges when rolling out new programs or technologies? If so, what were some of your experiences like?

My experiences in integrating new behavioral health services spanned a wide variation of medical specialties and along with each different setting, there were different challenges in the program. As I often joked, “Politics are always local.” Meaning, we would take the “ideal” integration model and scale it to fit the needs within the specific clinic.

The most frequent challenge encountered was lack of physician involvement in the planning and rollout. While there is no doubt that integration is a good and necessary step in treating the whole person, the planning needs to have front line staff involvement. When the new program is thrust upon the care teams without input and good communication, it leads to unnecessary problems in the beginning.

My experience is that once the new defined integrated team works through initial pains of day-to-day operations, there is much satisfaction on everyone’s part in the ability to address the client’s needs from a multidisciplinary focus. Patients invariably love it. There is a reduction in barriers for the client as well as increased perception that the health system really does care about the individual.

In your opinion, how do we move to modernize healthcare from both an operational and technological standpoint?

One of my frequent concerns is that we continue to provide reactive healthcare as opposed to preventative health care. A focus on overall well-being that addresses the link between mind and body means that our system would place value on treatment that prevents further illness or deterioration (e.g., massage, therapy, life coaching, etc.).

Additionally, our system is fractured with silos of methodology and technology that is not available universally. And our healthcare systems need to continue to strive toward alternative payment methods other than fee-for-service, which limits creative outreach for folks who would likely fall through the cracks of our current system.

Patients are often reluctant to admit they may have a mental health problem. How do we shift the culture in order to empower those who need help but are unwilling to seek it?

While there are multiple ways to address this question, I would suggest we need to take a different approach to helping our kids learn resilience and provide a better understanding of self-care.

When we normalize the idea of seeking help and shift perceptions around self-care, it will change everything.

Moreover, I am an advocate of Trauma Informed Care, which addresses culture change within public service organizations (e.g., schools, medical school, police, firefighters, legal system, hospitals, mental health clinics, etc.). Trauma Informed Care provides the basis in which the entire system is trained to provide sensitive practice around individuals who may have experienced trauma in their life.

As we know, trauma may significantly influence how someone copes and approaches (or avoids) healthcare. Trauma Informed Care trains staff to better understand that what they see as a problem behavior (e.g., smoking, using drugs, over-eating, etc. ) and is usually reflected as “What’s wrong with you?” is better address by the question, “What happened to you?” This attitude shifts how we as providers respond to individuals who are struggling and allows for more collaborative, trusting relationships.

You sometimes work with patients who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or are recovering from traumatic events that trigger lasting mental health issues. How does this clinical treatment vary, as opposed to someone who may be battling stress and anxiety?

One major difference between “treatment as usual” for stress and anxiety as compared to trauma is that I often spend much more time developing trust and rapport with patients who have history of trauma. They may need much more time to feel comfortable disclosing vulnerable details and may not be ready to jump into treatment that focuses on the trauma.

There are select evidence-based therapies that follow specific protocols for treatment of PTSD and trauma, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), and Prolonged Exposure (PE).

What gave you the impetus to start your own practice after spending more than 10 years within a healthcare organization?

I will forever be grateful for the bountiful knowledge and training imparted through my relationship with healthcare organizations and the providers with whom I partnered.

I always loved the energy of meeting and working with “thought leaders” within the mental health and medical fields. However, I had this powerful drive to “spread my wings” and see how my clinical practice might impact others without the invariable constraints of working within one organization.

How can psychiatrists and medical professionals benefit from leveraging technology in clinical settings?

Clients are moving toward technology as a likely place to search for answers and help. Nearly everyone has a smartphone with them at all times.

In an age where instantaneous gratification is assumed the norm, technology that offers biofeedback and/or wellness prompts seems to be an excellent way for clients to learn how to tune into their body — using a tool that is easily accessible.

I also find that clients love having the NeuroFlow app as a self-help tool between sessions. They seem to feel more supported, knowing that I am continuing to challenge them outside of our one hour.

Why do you love what you do?

The “work” is so satisfying in many ways. I am able to assist individuals in their journey of life and help them achieve better relationships, improved quality of life through symptom reduction.

It is absolutely fulfilling, and humbling, to hear from a client how they utilized our therapy session to drive change in their lives.

I also have the creative freedom to explore different ways of practice—whether it’s through therapy, life coaching, lectures, teaching, or workshops.  

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