In the News

Pier 34 expands mental health treatment for the underserved

Dave Cathey

Among the very few positives of the ongoing global pandemic is the priority it has put on mental health and how it has helped diminish the stigma of mental illness, according to a pair of local professionals. 

“It really is normalizing it because I don’t think it’s missing anybody,” said Donnie Van Curen, a Licensed Marital and Family Counselor. “It doesn’t matter your occupation, your age, ethnicity, it’s hitting you, and I think that’s one of the things that’s normalizing is everybody is struggling with anxiety or fear or depression.” 

Danny Van Curen and Jennifer Cox, licensed mental health professionals who founded Pier 34, offer mental health services for underserved industries.

Van Curen is co-founder of Pier 34, a nonprofit that provides mental-health services at a drastically reduced rate for qualified individuals from a system of qualified professionals with various specialties. 

Pier 34 is personal to co-founder Dr. Jennifer Cox, who grew up in a family tragically impacted by mental illness. Her life experience inspired her to pursue a career helping people treat mental illness, but after losing her brother, Rob, who battled bipolar disorder his entire adult life, she felt compelled to take action on a gaping hole in treatment. 

Cox filled a void left by the energy she expended as a caregiver to her brother by building a business model for Pier 34 and approached her suite-mate with it.

Van Curen, who has a business and marketing background, whittled the plan into shape, and in 2018, Pier 34 was born.

Three years after its inception, Cox says its network of professionals is at 22.

“We work with people who are either uninsured or underinsured,” she said. “People who are hard-working individuals that cannot afford a $60 copay and don’t qualify for help from the state.”  

Those interested can go to to apply for assistance. Those who qualify based on income and other economic factors can then sign on to the site, where they will undergo a broad mental-health assessment and then be given a list of prospective counselors.

“These are very carefully chosen therapists,” Cox said. “And strategically placed around the metro to increase access to care. We offer different specialties — each therapist kind of has their genre or area of focus.”

Those who qualify can get treatment with a $15 copay per appointment and a free six-month membership to the YMCA.

Finding safe harbor

Pier 34 honors Cox’s brother Rob, who was 34 when he died and who had always found a safe harbor in his sister. Cox said she realized after her brother was gone she had “not only lost my best friend, but my pier on the water.” 

Rob’s condition was diagnosed not long after they lost their mother.

“As a child, my mother suffered from severe depression to the extent that she was hospitalized 16 times,” Cox said.

Cox, Rob and their younger sister spent a significant amount of time in foster care. 

“It wasn’t until my mother was 47 years old that she received counseling and what she told me about that experience was that it was the first time in her life that she felt heard by someone,” Cox said. “Unfortunately that was through hospice. She passed away four months later from cancer.”

After 10 years of treatment, Cox saw progress for Rob.

“Finding him the best treatment that we could, and he really had a good quality of life for about two years, and then at the age of 34 he passed away,” Cox said. “And I will never know why. He was just found dead in his apartment, and it was absolutely devastating.”

People in need

Therapy and medication were having a positive effect, but Cox knew treatment should have come sooner. As a professional, she knew mental health resources were not readily available for people in need. 

People like chef Michael Paske. 

Paske was beloved in the local food-service industry. But early trauma triggered chronic depression, which developed into a lethal alcohol addiction. Paske took his life last summer, leaving a wife and two daughters. 

After reading about Paske’s passing, Cox reached out to Jimmy Mays, co-owner of The Hamilton, where Paske spent the last part of his career. In the course of conversation, they learned Mays knew her co-founder. 

“When I was looking for some family counseling, a friend recommended Donnie (Van Curen),” Mays said. 

Following Paske’s death, Mays and his partners Chris Kana and chef Stephanie Miller gathered their employees to encourage open discussion and frank talk about mental illness. They also made a promise to keep Paske’s legacy alive by finding resources for the community. 

“We keep his picture on our desk in the office,” Miller said. “We see him every day.” 

Since Cox and Mays connected, he and his partners have provided Pier 34 information at all of their restaurants, including Cafe 7 locations. 

Paske’s death and the tremendous stress COVID-19 has put on food-service professionals created a demand Pier 34 was eager to meet. Cox said they’re serving so many patients now, the program is ready to add new mental-health providers.

“We’d like to add group therapy, and maybe in-patient services,” Cox said.

Volunteer and donation information is available online at

How to help

Pier 34 will hold its third annual shrimp boil on Sept. 24 at the Edmond Farmers Market, 26 W First St. in Edmond. Festivities begin at 6:30 p.m.; Brent’s Cajun Seafood and Oysters will provide the feast. All proceeds help provide the funds that make the program possible. Cost is $60 for the event, which includes dinner and live music.