Organizations move to telehealth model
As cases of the COVID-19 virus continue to multiply in Minnesota, many are staying at home as much as possible and practicing social distancing to slow the spread of the virus. But extended time at home and the potential feelings of isolation that come with it are taking a toll. Local mental health clinic Canvas Health has seen an uptick in new patient requests and inquiries into telehealth options.
The impact of social distancing
Heather Mundis, the supervisor of child and adult outpatient services at Canvas Health’s Forest Lake clinic, acknowledges this additional strain on individuals and the community at large.
“Social distancing will, in fact, slow down the spread of the virus, but it comes at a cost,” she said. “Spending days or weeks at home, away from extended family and friends, away from work, away from school, away from daily routines or normalcy, can be extremely stressful. … Social distancing can generate fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, mood swings and depression.”
In the past week, the government has called for restrictions on gatherings of over 10 people. Gov. Tim Walz has also ordered a shut-down of eat-in options at bars, restaurants, and coffee shops; gyms and fitness centers; salons and spas; and entertainment venues like arcades and bowling alleys. This order lasts until 5 p.m. March 27, but Walz said he’ll likely extend it.
In errands and outings that can’t be avoided, he and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending practicing social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19 and help hospitals and clinics from becoming inundated with new cases.
According to the Red Cross, social distancing is “deliberately increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness. Staying at least 6 feet away from other people lessens your chances of catching COVID-19. Examples include avoiding mass gatherings, working from home if possible, closing schools, visiting loved ones electronically instead of in person and canceling or postponing conferences or large meetings.”
Mental health clinics offer telehealth services
Last week, Canvas Health’s Forest Lake clinic began exploring telehealth options, and this week they’ll be turning over their services to exclusively offer telehealth appointments for the time being. As they make that transition, however, they want to ensure that current clients have the technology and privacy they need to conduct appointments from home.
“As of last week, Canvas Health has trained over 100 providers in the delivery of mental health services through telehealth,” said Mundis. “We know that COVID-19 has caused most people some measure of anxiety and perhaps depression. We also know that our residents who have been living with diagnosed anxiety and depression are at risk of elevated symptoms.”
With this training, they are ready to serve both existing and new patients through a telehealth model.
Lakes Center for Youth and Families went fully telehealth last week. All of their face-to-face appointments were switched to video appointments, using a Skype-like platform.
“For most organizations that provide mental health support, [telehealth] has been done somewhat. But to make that total switch in basically 24 hours for a lot of agencies was challenging,” LC4YF Executive Director Linda Madsen said. “But our staff have really stepped up in trying to connect with clients.”
Since many of the clients they serve are youth, and they often meet with them in schools during school hours, this switch-over required a lot of coordination. With schools being closed, their therapists and counselors had to get in contact with clients, schedule new appointments and ensure that they had the proper resources for telehealth appointments. Their intake appointments for intervention services for youth are also being conducted via telehealth.
LC4YF’s therapists and office staff are almost all working remotely during this time. Madsen said that just she and two other employees are continuing to work in the office, and they’re practicing social distancing and regularly disinfecting while they’re there.
She added that they haven’t set an end-date of when they’ll go back to face-to-face appointments, but are looking to the governor’s office for guidelines.
“Things certainly are unfolding every day. Like every mental health agency, business and organization, we are trying to protect the people we serve and trying to protect the people who are part of our organization,” Madsen said. “We are looking to Gov. Walz to give us guidance on how long we would continue doing this.”
Local human services organizations adjust offerings
Family Pathways, which offers healthy food access, domestic and sexual violence prevention and victim services, supervised visitation, services for older adults and caregivers and youth programming — as well as operating several thrift stores — has added a page to its website addressing changes in its services due to COVID-19.
Family Pathways noted that its food shelves will continue operating and accepting donations, but the model will switch from customers shopping for their own food to a pre-packed grocery model where food is delivered curbside. Family Pathways’ 24-hour crisis hotline for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault will also continue to operate, as will its Black Dog Hill Shelter. However, Step Up, its education group for men, is suspended until further notice as are any other trainings, meetings or support groups.
Family Pathways has also suspended other services for the time being, including its aging services, supervised visits and safe exchanges. Its thrift stores and Forest Lake Teen Center are also closed until further notice.
With the programs and services Family Pathways is continuing to operate, its staff and volunteers who are in a high-risk category who display signs of illness or come into contact with affected individuals are advised to stay home. However, it’s looking for volunteers at its food shelf who are not in a high-risk category and feel healthy. Family Pathways is also continuing to accept donations of food, cleaning supplies, pet food and personal care items, as well as monetary donations so that they can continue offering services to those in need in the communities they serve.
Taking care of yourself at home
So, what can individuals do to take care of their mental health during this time of social distancing, where feelings of isolation and loneliness can bubble up?
“It’s natural for people to experience fear and anxiety in response to the uncontrollable and unpredictable nature of the recent coronavirus pandemic,” said Rebecca Bowers, a therapist at LC4YF. “It may be tempting to immerse yourself in the rapidly changing situation. Do your best not to panic or overwhelm yourself further. While it’s important to educate yourself, be sure to also make time to care for yourselves and each other. Taking a break, connecting with others, and caring for your physical and emotional health are good ways to reduce stress and find balance throughout this time.”
Mundis agrees. She suggests limiting your intake of the news and only getting it from trusted sources such as the CDC or the governor’s office.
In addition, she said: “We can create a daily routine for ourselves and our children, and follow it. We need to make sure that we get enough sleep — not too much, not too little — exercise and eat a balanced diet. And we need to stay connected with others via calls, texts, and video.
“Meditation, stress management and other skills can help us in tough times. There are apps that can walk us through mindfulness and relaxation exercises, guide us in deep breathing, muscle relaxation, focusing on positive thinking and gratitude. And this is the time to use our mental health providers.”
Mundis said that Gov. Walz has clarified that mental health workers are considered Tier 1 providers.
“We are considered on par with other first responders and are committed to staying open through telehealth, to be of service to our community,” she said.
The following are a list of resources for those experiencing a mental health or food crisis:
• National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
• Family Pathways Food Shelf Locations: familypathways.org/our-work/map-of-services/
• Family Pathways 24-hour crisis hotline for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault: 800-338-SAFE (7233)
• Lakes Center for Youth and Families office: 651-464-3685
• Canvas Health Forest Lake office: 651-777-5222
• Statewide Food Shelf Map: hungersolutions.org/find-help/#map
• Additional food help: 2harvest.org/who--how-we-help/how-to-get-help
• Meditation and mindfulness apps: Calm (calm.com) and Headspace (headspace.com)