Penn State University: WPSU web project ‘The First Step’ tackles barriers to change

For many people, taking the first step toward getting help can be one of the hardest parts of the journey.

A new web project from WPSU called “The First Step” walks visitors through the process of making change in three different areas: seeking treatment for substance use, moving to a retirement community, and starting therapy.

“It’s about overcoming fear of the unknown,” said Kristin Bittner, the lead instructional designer on the project. “Making change is really hard, and often the first step is the hardest step. We thought if we could demystify what that first step is, it wouldn’t be so daunting.”

The project is aimed at adults of all backgrounds — either individuals seeking information for themselves or friends and family members, Bittner said.

First-person video and audio recordings help explain each of the three processes. The segment on seeking help for substance use, for example, includes recordings of sample conversations with an actual operator on PA Get Help Now, a confidential helpline operated by the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

The segment also includes videos of treatment providers speaking directly to the camera and explaining the steps involved in going to a treatment center.

“Hi, my name is Maury,” says a woman in scrubs. “I’m a registered nurse here and you look a little scared. Is this your first time in treatment? I understand. You’re going to be OK. You took the first step by walking through the door. We’re here to make sure that you’re OK.”

The producers wanted to dispel misconceptions such as the idea that treatment will be cold or punitive, Bittner said.

“This is a health care setting,” she said. “This is a medical disease. You will be treated like a patient.”

In the section on moving to a retirement community, actual residents share advice on questions to ask before moving, with “Don’t wait too long!” being a common theme across all of the topics, Bittner said.

The segment on starting therapy includes an audio recording of a therapist taking a sample first call from a patient, and video recordings of how a session might begin and end. There are also videos of conversations about taking a break from therapy and wanting to change therapists.

“We want to break down these hard life decisions that are hindered by fear, to help people make positive decisions about their personal well-being,” Bittner said. “We hope we can at least break it down into actionable steps.”

The project was made possible through WPSU’s Project Innovation Fund, which awards funding to the winner of a competition where staffers can pitch ideas that don’t already have funding. The First Step was the 2021 winner.

WPSU hopes to raise funds to create additional segments, which might include topics such as joining a gym, entering a women’s shelter, and getting a colonoscopy or mammogram, said WPSU senior producer Lindsey Whissel Fenton.

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