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Mental health professionals adapt during the pandemic

Therapists see clients online, on phone and with video

YOUNGSTOWN — Amid continuing concerns spurred by the spread of COVID-19, most people are electing to stay at home and self-isolate — and behavioral health care, like many other services, has had to adapt.

In response to the virus, state and federal governments have lifted restrictions that made teletherapy, or therapy by phone, difficult for counselors to perform and bill. Now, people are getting the care they need by phone or video chat.

“The response to teletherapy has been really incredible,” said Joseph Caruso, president and CEO of COMPASS Family and Community Services. “I believe people have been feeling really comfortable.”

Caruso said COMPASS contracts through Google Meets to provide video counseling that is Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliant. Within the last week, the organization has also been able to provide counseling services over the phone.

“Yes, this is something that is new, but I believe in these critical times, it is even more important to have this tool available,” Caruso said.

He said though behavioral health is an essential service and COMPASS can keep its doors open, walk-in traffic in the waiting room makes recommended social distancing difficult and can lead to more anxiety for clients.

VIDEO CHAT

Neil Kennedy Recovery Center in Youngstown has switched its intensive outpatient sessions to teletherapy, said Executive Director Carolyn Givens.

Givens said a 12-person group usually meets in person with a therapist, but because of COVID-19 concerns, the group has been meeting over video chat.

“That’s been going well,” Givens said. She said some groups have been smaller than normal, but have still had an attendance of about eight people.

The recovery center’s detox program, located on the sixth floor of St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, is still operating in person, as is the inpatient center. The program has not been changed much despite COVID-19, Givens said.

Joe Shorokey, CEO of Alta Care Group, said his staff has adapted to using teletherapy in the last week — as have the families Alta Care services.

“The staff was surprised by how welcoming and appreciative the families are,” Shorokey said.

Alta is an outpatient community behavioral health provider focused on behavioral health services for ages 1 to 24.

Shorokey said providing counseling over the phone or online has allowed counselors during sessions to share links, resources and documents in real-time.

He said the non-profit has been fortunate so far that most families have been willing to make the change, which has proved an adjustment for everyone.

“I think it’s a slight decrease in terms of the amount of people that we’re seeing. The more significant decrease is in the time we’re spending with them. What would have been an hour face-to-face is often turning into a half-hour or 45 minutes,” Shorokey said. “Maybe it may always be that way, or maybe it will be a learning curve for our family and staff.”

STAYING CONNECTED

Jody Klase, director of Valley Counseling, said “loosened” state rules for providing remote therapy have been “very key” to helping the organization maintain clients.

“We actually have experienced an increase in clients,” Klase said. “There are so many barriers that prevent people from coming into the office. This way, it’s easier for them to stay connected.”

She said she’s hoping teletherapy will become a permanent option after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

Teletherapy also extends past what behavioral health organizations are offering, according to Duane Piccirilli, executive director for the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board.

“It isn’t just the official telehealth people are receiving. I think a lot of the peers are reaching out, a lot of the smaller agencies are reaching out, and support groups are reaching out by telephone and online,” Piccirilli said. “Everyone is really finding a new way to reach out and provide support.”

Piccirilli said as the community comes together through telehealth, even friends and neighbors can do their part to assure that everyone in the community has the support they need.

“I think what’s really important is that people need to be reaching out to their neighbors. Telehealth can be much more than what we do as mental health agencies,” Piccirilli said. “This is a much bigger issue than any agency can handle.”

avugrincic@tribtoday.com

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