ST. ALBANS — As with everything else in 2020, mental health services have adapted to provide supports in new ways and meet increasing needs in the community.
“We know people are struggling, and we’re here to provide the services and support they need,” said Todd Bauman, executive director of Northwestern Counseling & Support Services.
At the very beginning of the pandemic, when information was changing rapidly, NCSS rooted its response in three guiding principles drawn directly from the agency’s mission, explained Bauman.
The first was insuring the safety of both staff and the people being served. The second was providing access to care, and the third was ensuring the survival of the agency itself and that it had the resources to keep its doors open. “We anchored our decisions on these key principles,” Bauman said. “We adapted, adapted, adapted every step of the way.”
There were some initial layoffs of staff, primarily of people who provided one-on-one supports in workplaces and schools, as both closed. Some families felt that with school closed they didn’t need the support of a behavior interventionist, Bauman said, but that changed. “After a few weeks families started to call,” he said, as they realized an interventionist might be able to help even if the child wasn’t in school.
NCSS has been slowly recalling staff, Bauman said.
Overall, the agency has seen an increase in people accessing mental health services through the crisis line, but also through partnerships with Northwestern Medical Center, primary care physicians, schools and others.
“We tried to find ways to insure people had access to care,” Bauman said.
For many, that meant remote access, but even at the height of the pandemic in Vermont NCSS continued to offer face-to-face services for those who needed them. In some cases that might mean an in-person meeting one week and a remote meeting the next, Bauman said.
“At one point, it felt like there was too much change,” Bauman said, adding, “Our ability to adapt was one of our agency’s greatest strengths.”
“We continue to adapt as the needs change,” he said. The agency is slowly moving to more in-person care, but remains able to shift back to more remote services. “We’re able to pivot on a dime,” Bauman said.
One of the surprises has been how well remote services have worked, according to Bauman.
NCSS offers parenting programs, as well as supports for families whose children have special needs. “That was much better done in person was our thinking,” said Bauman. Families, he said, were also skeptical about how well those services could be provided remotely.
But it went surprisingly well. One mother even called to say how well the supports her child receives had worked, and the difference had been that she was more involved, which benefited everyone.
“We were kind of surprised, and I think some of the families were as well,” Bauman said.
One of the biggest differences was that transportation, which had been a challenge for many families, was no longer an issue. The number of people who missed appointments went down. Not having the stress of trying to find transportation was a boon for many families, according to Bauman.
Even when the pandemic ends, telehealth will be part of the continuum of service at NCSS, with individuals and families likely having a mix of in-person and remote services based on what works best in their situation.
“We were moving that way as a health care system, but it was moving very slowly,” Bauman said. The pandemic accelerated that change, and for some people it has meant a greater access to care, he suggested.
There were some challenges, not only with access to broadband itself, but also with access to devices. Most schools sent kids home with laptops, but then recalled those laptops when the school year ended in order to do maintenance on them, explained Bauman. That often meant trying to provide services on cell phones, he said.
Despite the stress of the pandemic, locally there has not been an increase in suicide rates, but there has been an increase in crisis calls “which we see as good,” said Bauman. “We want people to access services and to know how to access services.”
NCSS has had an unexpected partner in spreading the word about its services — local businesses.
Bauman said businesses have called to get information to share with employees, because they’re seeing signs of stress in their employees.
The financial stress, especially for those who have lost their jobs, has “put so much pressure on families that it’s taking a toll,” he said.
There have also been calls from people who are either at higher risk of COVID-19 themselves or have loved ones who are, and are dealing with the increased stress of staying safe or keeping their loved ones safe.
“If people need care, we want them to call. We don’t want them to wait,” said Bauman.
NCSS, too, has taken on some new roles. When Meals on Wheels needed additional help making deliveries, NCSS staff delivered meals. They also assisted schools with meal delivery and helped out at food shelves. NCSS staff have been available at pop-up testing sites for COVID-19.
“If we’ve had capacity, we’ve tried to step up and fill that need,” Bauman said.
“Humans are really wired to have social connections,” Bauman said. Being cut off from those connections whether at work, school or the local senior center takes a toll.
“We’ve been really trying to get people to think of it as physical distancing,” he said, and to think about ways to connect socially while staying physically distant, including getting together with a few trusted friends and finding ways to do so outside while keeping apart.
Asked about the long-term impacts of the pandemic on children whose learning is being disrupted, particularly when they aren’t getting the social interaction that comes with school, Bauman said it isn’t clear what those effects will be yet.
The stress on parents of trying to work themselves while providing more care for kids as well as supporting their education shows in the increased calls for services, he said.
Asked what message he wanted to convey to the community, Bauman said, “We know people are struggling, and we’re here to provide the services and supports they need.”