Therapy in van offered to cope with life on run


August 21, 1994|By Marian Uhlman | Marian Uhlman,Knight-Ridder News Service

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- From the society that hailed the 10-minute oil change, the fast-food restaurant and the automated teller machine, it was only a matter of time before someone would offer therapy in a van.

Patients pressed for time now can buckle up and talk while en route from home to the office, from the office to a business appointment or to no place in particular.

Mobile Psychological Services, based in this New York suburb, caters to people who cannot fit counseling appointments into their harried lives.

Take Susan Anderson. A single mother with two young children and a high-powered job in the Manhattan apparel industry, she found she no longer could carve out time for visits to her therapist.

"I wanted to stay in therapy, but there are just so many hours in a day," Ms. Anderson said. "Therapists don't work at 5:30 in the morning or 12 at night, when I could get there."

Now, therapy comes to her every Wednesday afternoon in a van converted into a carefully decorated office and escorts her to Westchester County, where she lives.

The trip takes an hour or sometimes two, depending on traffic, and the occasional bumps don't get in the way of the conversation, she said.

"It is exactly the same," she said about commuting therapy. "I don't find it any different, except this [therapy] is accessible and the other is not."

Mobile Psychological Services is the brainchild of Ursula Strauss, who started the business in April with a colleague from the large New York medical school complex where they work.

She declined to name the school, saying her business was entirely independent.

Besides the two owners -- each with a doctorate in psychology -- the business has four professional staff members and three chauffeurs.

So far, they have 40 clients, most of whom work in the New York financial industry, and the escalating demand has prompted them to add a fourth van to their fleet.

They also are considering franchises in other cities, such as Los Angeles, Washington, Boston and Philadelphia.

The need for the service is "sad in a way," Dr. Strauss said. It illustrates how out of whack many people's lives are.

"There is an imbalance in a lot of us toward work to the extent it neglects our need for rest, relaxation and interpersonal interaction," said Shelley Lennox, Dr. Strauss' partner in the business.

"We don't have a balance in our lives, and that is really unhealthy. Very unhealthy."

Dr. Strauss said the clients come to the mobile practice generally because they are stressed out, have an alcohol or drug problem or are struggling with a relationship.

In their work life, they hold powerful, lucrative jobs where often they manage other people and are supposed to be in control.

"There are real troubles," said Dr. Strauss, who has more than 20 years of experience doing therapy. "These individuals are expected to go on empty, and they are expected to function in spite of it."

Dr. Strauss thinks of herself as a modern Lone Ranger, trying to solve the problems of the day. Without the mask, she rides into town with Silver -- but in her case it's the color of her unmarked Chevrolet van, not the name of her horse.

Inside, she encourages her patients to sit in one of the two rear bucket seats positioned around a low coffee table, usually laden with a box of tissues, a dish of chocolates and cut flowers from her White Plains home.

There are lights above the gray drapes and a clock on the gray-paneled wall. On the other side of a soundproof wall sits the van's driver.

Patients often schedule their commuting time for therapy.

Others, Dr. Strauss said, just want the convenience and privacy of slipping out of their office for an hour to cruise for a parking space -- a feat in itself in New York City.

All this costs $175 an hour at an introductory rate. Prices are expected to go up early next year.

The service is generating only a small profit today, Dr. Strauss said.

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