– By Josh Durso
Social distancing comes with a lot of challenges. People are social creatures, so they crave interaction. During a pandemic like the one impacting most of the globe – Governor Andrew Cuomo called on mental health professionals across New York to create ‘networks’ for the community to leverage.
How does that happen, though, in a world where social interaction is strongly discouraged – if not outright banned?
Margaret Morse, Director of Community Services for Seneca County says the timing of this pandemic flowed with a long-term mission that Seneca’s merged mental health and substance abuse clinic had been working toward.
It pivots around the concept of telehealth – a relatively new concept where patients or users can have one-on-one interaction with healthcare professionals without ever leaving their home. Morse says Seneca has been working on implementing this for about two years, and now, the County is ‘ready to go’. “It has been fairly smooth,” she said. “Staff had to learn the technology and we are teaching our clients how to utilize the technology, but so far, it going well.”
Most-incredibly, she says ‘show rates’, or the frequency at which people either do, or do not, show up for a given appointment has increased in a positive direction. “We have equipped all therapists with laptops, which made the transition to remote services possible,” Morse said. “Seneca County’s IT department has truly been ahead of the curve in all ways. I can’t say enough positive things about the Department and their Director, Rob Laprade. We literally got everyone working from home within days of the Governor’s mandate. Staff have also been incredibly flexible and creative.”
She says that while the outside world might view an increase in ‘show rates’ as a surprise – it doesn’t feel that way from the inside. “It should be no surprise that those numbers are improving,” she said. “Telehealth really make services convenient for our recipients.”
Seneca County Community Counseling is providing all services other than injections in this way. Morse said all psychiatric medication services, therapy services, medication assisted treatments for opioid use disorder, intakes and assessments are all being prior via telehealth or telephonically. “We do have some staff on site to provide in person services as needed for those who have no phone or internet connectivity or if it’s clinically indicated,” she added.
However, Morse says they have been mindful to keep each other going through the process. The work hasn’t stopped flowing — even as the government mandated shutdown of most of the economy in New York.
“I have been surprised how much our staff miss working together in the office and working from home has been a big change as it is isolating,” Morse said. “We are working hard to keep morale up. We have been holding twice weekly clinical meetings via Zoom.” She says they have been generated daily email chains that keep conversation and interaction going between staff members. “[The staff] is holding up well, but we really are working hard to remain connected and positive. My greatest responsibility at this time is to my staff because if they aren’t healthy – we can’t serve the community.”
The temporary suspension of social interaction could have a significant impact on the mental health of the community-at-large. That fact isn’t lost on Morse, who says that it’s part of her department’s overall plan to deal with the issues at play.
“Social connectivity is so important to mental wellness for everyone including those with pre-existing mental health disorders. This is obviously challenging during these times,” she explained. “I know that some of the services that people we serve generally engage with may be closed and I want to ensure that all of our recipients are aware of the resources and services available to them in Seneca County at this time – food, shelter, mental health services, social services, etc.”
Morse says concerns remain high for those with substance use disorders who may be out of work and isolated. “These factors can contribute to relapse, but I want these individuals to know that we have peers still visiting clients – if necessary – and that there are tons of recovery meetings taking place online.”
The message from her staff is simple: “We’re here to ensure no one goes without services.”
All services remain available via telehealth or phone, injections are still being given, and people in crisis can still call The Seneca County Mental Health Department and Seneca County Community Counseling Center for help. “We will ensure their needs are met,” Morse added. “They are not alone.”