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Adapting mental health care to meet the demands of COVID-19

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

by Danny Gladden, MBA, LCSW

Published on 6/2/2020

The many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic ─ fear of the disease, isolation, economic uncertainty and the loss of our normal routines ─ are taking a significant toll on our mental health. In fact, the United Nations recently issued a policy brief on the need to act on mental health, stating in its executive summary:

“Although the COVID-19 crisis is, in the first instance, a physical health crisis, it has the seeds of a major mental health crisis as well, if action is not taken. Good mental health is critical to the functioning of society at the best of times. It must be front and center of every country’s response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The mental health and well-being of whole societies have been severely impacted by this crisis and are a priority to be addressed urgently.”  

For months now, mental health providers across the nation have felt the growing demand for their services and have adapted to deliver care to their clients during the pandemic. 

Responding to the COVID-19 mental health crisis 

In March, New York City and the surrounding areas became the epicenter of COVID-19 in the U.S. The Association for Mental Health & Wellness (MHAW), located in Long Island, New York, is working tirelessly to provide services for those affected by the pandemic. As a community behavioral health provider, and member of Mental Health America, MHAW is committed to public mental health advocacy and education.

As part of its COVID-19 response, MHAW is offering expanded helpline hours to better serve individuals who are dealing with challenges that have deepened amid the pandemic, such as mental health, substance abuse and housing or food insecurities. As part of its community-based services, MHAW runs three food pantries. These services have seen an increase in people seeking support as the rate of unemployment has grown and local soup kitchens have been forced to limit operations.

“We have a responsibility to our communities,” said Michael Stoltz, CEO, MHAW. “Our goal is to make sure our organization is providing input and responding to the mental health aspects of this crisis.” 

In Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, Rogers Behavioral Health, a private not-for-profit provider of mental health and addiction treatment, has made changes to address the impact the pandemic is having on its employees. For example, the organization is granting extra paid time off and additional support to its care team. 

Using technology to mitigate COVID-19 risks

Rogers also launched a telehealth treatment option as part of its COVID-19 response. Patients can connect with their entire behavioral health care team, receive individual therapy and join group sessions.

“Within a week of knowing stay-at-home orders were in place in states where we offer treatment, we quickly expanded our telehealth offering. Ultimately, 98% of our patients in outpatient care were being treated in a virtual environment, and about 50% of our inpatient and residential care team worked remotely to reduce risk,” said Adam El-Ali, vice president of clinical technology services, Rogers.

Before the pandemic, that number was significantly lower – about five to seven percent of patient interactions were conducted via telehealth. 

Similarly, MHAW also quickly shifted most of its services, including peer support groups, to phone or virtual environments. The organization launched five new bereavement groups, which will be held virtually until it’s safe to meet again in person. 

While virtual health options have proven to be a helpful tool, mental health organizations are also concerned with how to reach clients who don’t have the necessary technology, like smartphones, laptops and high-speed internet, to access telehealth.

“We assume everybody has a computer at home, everybody has a smartphone. But that’s not the case,” said MHAW’s Chief Operating Officer Paula Fries. “We started doing a tech assessment with all our clients, asking what they have access to and how we can engage with them.”

In addition to quickly adapting their telehealth strategy, Rogers has relied on electronic technologies such as e-prescribe to mitigate the risk of those with the virus entering their facilities.

“E-prescribe has been crucial to helping us control the risk of infection. We can send a prescription to the patient’s pharmacy so they can get the medicine they need without having to come to our locations,” said Nicole Klaus, director of Rogers’ EHR optimization and strategy. 

One reason the team at Rogers has been able to make a speedy transition to virtual options and provide seamless care amid the pandemic is that their data is hosted remotely by CernerWorks. This allows the staff to have reliable access from anywhere with an internet connection.

“The remote hosting model has been a significant advantage during the pandemic,” said El-Ali. “We can access our information no matter where we are, and we can depend on Cerner to provide that information to us when we need it.” 

The physical effects of the pandemic may be easier to see but the fear, isolation and uncertainty that accompany COVID-19 and impact our mental health must be urgently addressed and prioritized. As the industry continues to weather this extraordinary health storm, mental health providers will need to continue to adapt to meet the growing demand for behavioral health care.

The Cerner behavioral health solution is designed to empower health care providers in helping individuals achieve optimal wellness through data-driven, preventative and supportive solutions and services unique to each person in needLearn more here 

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