With the merger of PRS and CrisisLink, CrisisLink executive director Julia Stephens, left, will become director of business development at PRS. Wendy Gradison, right, will remain CEO of PRS. (PRS)

Two longtime mental health nonprofits in Northern Virginia announced Friday they are merging. PRS, formerly known as Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, and CrisisLink will join forces to help address the community’s growing mental health needs.

The number of people suffering from serious mental illnesses and serious emotional problems has escalated in recent years, triggered in part by stress created by the economic downturn. By combining their efforts, the new organization, which will retain the name PRS, should reach more people.

“Together we are greater than the sum of our parts,” said PRS chief executive Wendy Gradison.

A year ago, Crisis Link executive director Julie Stephens approached Gradison looking for ways to bring income into the organization as demands for service continued to outpace funding. She also wanted to deepen the partnership with PRS. They discussed a couple of options before coming to the conclusion that because the services they each offer complement rather than compete with the other, a merger made the most sense.

“The more we talked about it we said we have to do this,” Stephens said. “She and I were sold on this almost from the beginning.”

PRS, which serves Northern Virginia and D.C., was created in 1963 as a result of the Community Mental Health Act. It provides skilled training and support to people with serious mental health issues. CrisisLink is in its 45th year of providing skilled, compassionate listening on its 24-hour phone hotline to people in the region.

The efficiencies created by sharing resources were just one reason for going ahead with the merger. The women saw opportunities to expand their services to specific risk groups and create greater breadth and depth of services to those living with mental illnesses.

“The economy of scale that will be realized by merging the back office aspects will allow us to provide more direct service,” Gradison said. “That’s a really important piece of this; we can put more of our resources toward helping clients.”

They approached their boards, and a collaboration work group was formed with senior staff and senior leadership from both boards. They also brought in a third-party facilitator.

“One of the first things the group decided was [identifying] what we considered our merger success criteria,” Gradison said. “What did we all need to see in place in order for us to consider the merger successful.”

They agreed the missions of both organizations needed to be preserved and community needed to benefit from the merger, allowing more people to be served more deeply.

A pilot program was initiated earlier this year as a way to evaluate how a collaboration between the two would work. Ten clients of PRS were assigned to receive calls from CrisisLink as part of their CareRing program.

CareRing was initially started as a telephone support program for the elderly, a way of checking on people who live alone and can become isolated. As part of the 60-day pilot program, volunteers made calls to PRS clients, checking to make sure they took their medicine or just chatting with them if they were lonely.

The success of the pilot program spurred on the merger and a final agreement was reached last week.

No salaried staff member will lose his or her job as a result of the merger, though some staff will be reassigned to new jobs. Gradison will remain CEO of PRS, while Stephens will become director of business development. CrisisLink’s senior staff will move into PRS’s offices in McLean. CrisisLink’s call center will continue at Virginia Hospital Center, which donates the space.

“It’s a great thing,” Stephens said. “Watch out. We’re going to be doing great things.”