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William Glanz

Senior Writer

Coping in a Crisis: On the Frontlines with the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris, Inc.

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Marvin Gorsky, LCSW, senior director with the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris, Inc. in Montclair, New Jersey, consults with colleagues using his laptop.

Editor’s Note: The coronavirus outbreak has led practitioners to rethink behavioral health care treatment and the delivery of service. In this series, we will address the questions and concerns raised by providers and offer tips and suggestions to help you cope with problems caused by the pandemic.

The pandemic caused by COVID-19 created enormous hurdles for Robert Davison, MA, LPC, and his colleagues at the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris, Inc., in northern New Jersey.

It also provided an opportunity.

“We’ve never faced anything like this before,” said Davison, chief executive officer at the agency, headquartered in Montclair. “We have had to evolve and innovate over the past 10 days.”

The global public health crisis has elicited many emotions and reactions – fear, anxiety and concern rise to the top of the list. The crisis also has fueled creativity, productivity and an entrepreneurial spirit. People throughout behavioral health are searching for ways to provide treatment and services to clients despite enormous hurdles including restrictions on movement, lockdowns and even onerous federal regulations.

And they are finding solutions.

“In two weeks, we had to become much more innovative about our service delivery to meet the needs of the most vulnerable,” said Nadine Venezia, LSW, Chief Operating Officer at Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris, Inc.

Building a Telehealth Program

In just three days the clinic implemented telehealth services from scratch. When a 19-year old from Montclair experienced a psychotic episode, the pandemic prevented the man’s family from getting him immediate inpatient care. So, practitioners at the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris County provided the family assistance using telehealth. That included getting the man hospitalized.

“If we hadn’t been able to use telehealth, things could have been much worse,” Davison said.

Clinicians now use telehealth to provide psychiatric evaluations, therapy sessions, medication monitoring and family support groups.

The ability to pivot means the agency’s homeless outreach program, meals program and its partial care program, which serves 110 patients a day, all have continued uninterrupted. They’ve worked with food pantries and provide meals and other groceries to more than 100 people just last week.

“We are connecting with our clients in some way. Maybe not as often, but we are connecting with everybody on our caseload in some way,” Venezia said.

Going (more) Mobile

The agency considers its mobile services to be its primary strength.

Despite that, the program required modifications so clinicians could continue to provide treatment and services while also mitigating risk to clinicians.

Now, prior to making a trip to deliver services, staff members place a call to clients to assess their health through screenings, said Jessica Velasquez, R.N., a nurse at the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris, Inc.

If clients exhibit symptoms, mobile visits are canceled and staff provide services through telehealth, Velasquez said.

They haven’t eliminated all risks. One staff member may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, and the employee is on self-quarantine.

“I told her she has to be quarantined, and she said ‘What does that mean? Can I still work from home’,” Venezia said. “I just thought that was amazing.”

Developing New Programs

In addition to continuing services, the agency is working with the mayor’s office in Newark, N.J., and Rutgers University to operate a homeless shelter for people in that city with coronavirus.

The shelter, to be operated by the City of Newark with behavioral health support from the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris, Inc., will allow clinicians to work with Rutgers University’s early intervention support services to provide medical and psychiatric services.

“It’s really exciting to figure out how we can serve this population that has nowhere else to go to quarantine because they’re not going to be allowed into shelters,” said Arielle Scarpelli, LCSW, homeless outreach director at the agency.

Once clients are in the shelter, the clinic will leverage telehealth to continue providing services while they remain in quarantine.

The program will also allow the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris, Inc., to demonstrate their resilience and their ability to pivot in a crisis. The new program will also demonstrate the essential nature of behavioral health and the value that National Council for Behavioral Health members everywhere provide.

“We have a lot of heroes,” said Taisia Koeppel, LCSW, supportive housing director at the clinic. “I’ve never seen a team step up like our team has. It’s amazing to watch.”