Boulder County’s mental health community responds with agility to the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Kate Jonuska
In January 2020, Mental Health Partners (MHP) launched an innovative new outreach program. They embedded six community health workers with partners like libraries, food pantries and health care centers in Boulder, Longmont and Broomfield. These passionate folks hoped to be a regular presence in the lives of underserved locals, creating real relationships and reducing barriers to mental and behavioral health care. But then in March, the COVID-19 pandemic brought all of that exciting face-to-face work to a screeching halt.
“We thought, ‘Oh no,’” says Ashley Wallis, a community health worker with Deacon’s Closet at Grace Commons Church in Boulder, which distributes gently used clothing, toiletries and other items to people in need. “We’re community outreach. How are we going to reach the community when we’re not out?”
Faced with such a massive disruption, Wallis and everyone in the mental health field had to shift direction in a system already rife with financial and staffing shortages—and they needed to shift fast, since the need for their services was only rising.
By the Numbers
Colorado’s mental health care picture was far from perfect before the arrival of the novel coronavirus. Despite its high rankings for physical health, the state has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. One in five adults reports an unmet mental health need, and one in seven high school students seriously considered suicide in the last year, according to Boulder County Public Health.
Marcy Campbell, special initiatives coordinator with Boulder County Public Health, says, “Now with COVID, we’ve also seen an increase in need due to the pandemic’s impacts on the mental health of folks who wouldn’t necessarily say they have a mental health condition. This represents a collective trauma for us. We’re grieving our loss of normalcy and having a range of traumatic experiences, like losing jobs and having financial concerns that weigh on our emotional well-being.”
In March and April, calls to the Colorado Crisis Services phone lines were up almost 50 percent over previous years, says Campbell. And despite lower-than-average visits to emergency rooms for everyday accidents and even heart attacks, emergency room visits for suicide attempts have gone up during the pandemic over the same period of time in previous years.
Thankfully, the Boulder County mental health community is being proactive in response to the growing crisis, proving themselves as creative as they are compassionate and dedicated.
Meeting Challenge with Agility
Community health workers like Wallis took to social media, creating the Facebook group, “Broomfield and Boulder County Community Outreach,” where they post pandemic updates, health and wellness tips, and infographics to continue their mission. MHP’s six community health workers take virtual shifts on the group page so they’re available for messaging and can be present for their communities while physically distancing.
“We are still always available. As long as we can help, we will help,” says Wallis, who notes their services are holistic, encompassing not just mental health care, but also help with housing, employment or any general crisis. “Just talking can be so important. You need someone who can say, ‘I see you, I’ve been there, and I’ll sit with you and help you get to the other side.’”
Those practicing what’s considered more traditional mental health care—therapy and medication support—have proven themselves equally agile, according to Debra Sprague, interim vice president of clinical care at MHP.
“By the middle of March, we saw what was coming and began to gather all of our resources,” says Sprague about the sudden closure of most brick-and-mortar facilities. Computers meant to be taken out of service were brought back in for employees going remote. Donations allowed MHP to distribute phones to clients who might otherwise fall out of contact with their mental health support while offices are closed or limited. Most importantly, the organization embraced telehealth as a distance option for mental health care.
“It gets very complicated just from the tech side of things. These platforms [like Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams] are challenging, especially if you are someone struggling in your life and already in distress,” Sprague says. “But, it’s been encouraging because the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Due to the sensitive nature of mental health care, many people were skeptical about the efficacy of distance therapy, but in fact, MHP has found that fewer clients have canceled or missed therapy sessions when they went virtual. Sprague notes counselors working with children have had fantastic results with distance play therapy using the kids’ own toys. Even some group therapies are now running online.
“One of the experiences of working remotely with people is they may actually on some level feel more comfortable, so we’ve had some amazing breakthroughs,” she says. “I have clients who are expressing themselves and doing deep and wonderful work.” She foresees telehealth continuing as part of mental health care in the future, at least for those who prefer it.
Working the Silver Linings
In Boulder County, “We were set up for success,” says Sara Reid, manager of grants and program evaluation with MHP. “We were well-situated to respond to something as serious as COVID because we have the Community Health Worker Program and so many dedicated community partners. They ran toward the fire and dug in instead of running away.”
In fact, worker outreach and flyers posted at food pantries have enabled MHP to reach new audiences—people who have never sought out such services before and might not be aware of our community’s mental health resources. A new grant will fund the hiring of 11 more community health workers specifically for outreach surrounding pandemic crises, including unemployment, caretaker support, food assistance, and substance abuse and addiction (which is also on the rise during the pandemic).
The virus has certainly created barriers to mental health care. However, it could be a catalyst to radically change our ideas about mental health, simply because we’re talking more openly about mental illness, trauma responses, the importance of social connections and self-care, and how it’s OK to be not OK.
“In some good ways, our profession of behavioral health has really been elevated,” says Sprague. “I remember at the beginning when the New York governor was on TV saying they’d set up phone lines, and there are therapists to talk to you. When was the last time a national effort said, ‘Please seek mental health support?’”
Learn more about Mental Health Partners by visiting mhpcolorado.org. If you need immediate help, call the 24-hour crisis line at 1-844-493-8255 (TALK), text the word TALK to 38255 or visit MHP’s 24-hour walk-in center at 3180 Airport Road in Boulder.