May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it is an opportunity to reflect on the ways that mental health services within Children’s Aid have shifted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The most noticeable change has been the transition from face-to-face contacts to fully remote mental health treatment. This continuity of services was crucial to our public health efforts during the pandemic, and it will be equally important as we slowly transition into a “post-pandemic” society.
The onset of COVID-19, coupled with the stay-at-home orders, created a sense of fear, isolation, and anxiety. “Mental health” became a buzz word and was displayed on ads across all platforms. In the midst of confusion and insurmountable loss, the importance of mental health was brought to the forefront. Attending to one’s mental health was finally normalized, and the stigma associated with seeking mental health has thankfully started to erode.
As it became crucial to implement social distancing measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the use of telemental health services became a powerful tool in continuing to reach some of our most vulnerable client populations. The rapid implementation of technology to expand outreach to our clients proved to be beneficial and necessary. While mental health professionals were concerned about the therapeutic alliance and engagement being affected as a result of the unexpected changes, they were also able to find creative ways to continue their care without in-office sessions. Webinars and collaboration with other service provider organizations across the city proved to be useful in assisting mental health professionals with strategies and techniques to keep clients engaged. Our most important priority, always, was continuing to care for our clients.
Through trial and error, we were able to implement telemental health services across our communities. Within the Health and Wellness Division, there was a dramatic rise in the number of sessions each month. Clients no longer had to leave their home, reducing inadvertent obstacles to attend sessions. Therapists were now able to engage additional family members to include as part of the treatment. They were also able to see into the client’s physical world, a perspective that had previously not been available.
As we move forward, along with the ongoing and high demand for mental health services, the priority remains as it did in March 2020 – continuing to provide essential services to our clients and the communities in which they reside. The pandemic has shown us that we are ready to enter a new and innovative approach to the provision of mental health treatment.
In March 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order 202.38, which extends telehealth regulatory flexibility for OMH-licensed, funded, and designated programs. Since then, there have been monthly extensions to this executive order. Within the Health and Wellness Division, we have begun the process of adding telemental health services as an additional service to ensure we can continue to provide treatment services beyond this public health crisis.
As an organization that services children, adolescents, young adults, and their families, we are in a unique position. Through continued collaboration, effective communication, creating safe spaces, and building community, the possibilities for the continued reach to our most underserved populations are endless. The challenges and losses during this time have left scars, some that are visible, and others that cannot be seen by the naked eye but are present in so many souls. With the many tragedies that we have been witness to in the last year, it is our responsibility, both ethically and morally, to continue to do the work that strengthens the daily lives of the clients we come in contact with, as well as our communities at large.
The continued awareness and provision of mental health services has the power to impact the generational cycles of mental health stigma. We can work to create a future for the next generation that can be filled with hope, awareness, and reflection.