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Pandemic brings changes to mental health therapy

The prevalence of telehealth appointments for mental health treatment increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the option for remote treatment is expected to continue with increased availability.

While there have been mixed results when it comes to electronic appointments, the service has in some cases increased the effectiveness of mental health treatments, said Joe Caruso, CEO and president of COMPASS Family and Community Services.

“Electronic options assisted outpatient treatments by offering an alternative that still includes face-to-face options, which was something positive, but those unable to use the service or who had no internet or access to a computer or a phone, had to get services over the telephone,” Caruso said.

Telehealth has been the most significant change in mental health services since the beginning of the pandemic, Alta behavioral leader Rochelle Perotta said.

Staff in treatment programs have adapted to the model, and are “using technology in creative ways to provide services to clients,” she said.

“I think there has been an increase in anxiety and stress levels for families. Families have had to make significant adjustments to routines / schedules over the past year. I think it has definitely been harder on children socially,” Perotta said. Mental health disorders have “worsened, because of isolation amid the pandemic, and pandemic fears themselves,” Caruso said.

The pandemic has also made some put off seeking help because of concerns about interacting in situations with others.

Some people have avoided accessing domestic violence shelters due to fears of getting COVID-19, and / or becoming homeless once leaving the violent situation, said Meg Harris, clinical leader for Alta.

“For the first six months of the pandemic, significantly fewer people were seeking out behavioral health services. This was most certainly due to fear of exposure, unfamiliarity of telehealth services, or lack of access to smart phones or computers. However, we began to see an uptick in requests for counseling and other behavioral health services in the fall and we are now seeing significantly more referrals and requests. We have been anticipating a behavioral health surge and it is clearly started,” said Joe Shorokey, CEO of Alta.

Families are stressed financially and struggle with child care, and experience health-related and emotional impacts when family members die because of an illness related to COVID-19, said Jamie Miller, clinical leader for Alta.

On the other hand, knowing remote options for treatment were available encouraged others to seek help who may not have. Also, the comfort provided by remote interactions helped some open up more to providers, Caruso said.

“While some struggled with this mode of treatment, they also said it was better than no treatment at all. But some felt very comfortable and secure not leaving their house, interacting with a provider from their own couch,” Caruso said. “Counselors said some people talked about things they hadn’t talked about before because they were in their own space.”

Heidi Larew, clinical leader for Alta, said children and families learned to create a “therapeutic space in their own homes.”

Also, the pandemic pushed providers to get creative, Larew said.

“Now that we are providing some services in-person and some over teletherapy, we have learned a great deal and have an even broader approach to being able to meet our clients’ needs. One approach that we are using at Alta Care Group is art therapy. Clients have the option to receive an art therapy kit for use at home over telehealth or to come into the office and receive services in person. We now have individual, group and mural making art therapy opportunities,” Larew said.

Assistance programs created because of the pandemic also helped many families access utility and rent help, avoiding evictions and shutoffs, Harris said.

Caruso said he believes the lessons learned during the pandemic will expand access to remote mental health services in the future.

“We have another tool in the toolbox. It is not for everybody, but it can eliminate a whole lot of barriers, like transportation and childcare, and offers a secure session in the comfort of their own home,” Caruso said.

But a lack of in-person options isn’t for everyone, leaving the field to find ways to offer more traditional ways for treatment.

“There is never one size fits all,” Caruso said.

In the area of substance-use disorders, people can greatly benefit from in-person meetings, which offer the chance to socialize with and learn from peers who have been through similar challenges, Caruso said. Electronic options are available for support meetings, too.

Anyone can call the Help Network of Northeast Ohio at 211 to connect to myriad services, including mental health, substance-use recovery and suicide prevention. Peer supporters also are available to help those in recovery navigate the waters.

Helpful services in the Valley

• Alta Behavioral Heathcare, 330-793-2487, www.altabehavioralhealthcare.org

• Compass Family and Community Services, 330-782-5664, www.compassfamily.org

• Meridian Healthcare, 330-797-0070, www.meridianhealthcare.net

• Coleman Access Center, 330-392-1100

• Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board, 330-746-2959

•Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, 330-675-2765

• Narcotics Anonymous, 1-888-GET HOPE (1-888-438-4673)

•Gamblers Anonymous Ohio Hotline, 1-855-222-5542

vAlcoholics Anonymous treatment advisor, 330-747-2696

• Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline, 1-800-662-4357

• The Warm Line, a peer-to-peer service that connects people struggling with mental health, substance use issues or who just need someone to talk to is available 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday by calling at 1-866-303-7337

• The Help Network of Northeast Ohio, connects people to mental health and substance use disorder support, a suicide hotline and other resources, is available 24 / 7 by dialing 211. The direct line for the suicide hotline in Mahoning and Trumbull counties is 330-747-2696.

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