From telehealth to online outreach, Connections to Care is innovating to respond to the COVID-19 crisis

As a result of COVID-19, New Yorkers are facing unprecedented pressures and challenges. Many are experiencing job losses, other reductions in income, and new economic uncertainty. Others are dealing with the emotional toll of serving on the frontlines of the medical response, or in grocery stores, mass transportation, and other necessary services. Physical distancing measures have disrupted social connections and rituals, while calling attention to those for whom distancing is not always an option. And far too many have experienced the grief and loss of losing a loved one at this difficult time.

This Mental Health Awareness Month, it is perhaps more vital than ever to recognize and address the evolving mental health needs of New Yorkers. Equally as important is the need to recognize that some communities bear the physical, financial, and emotional burdens of the pandemic more than others. Structural inequalities influence the distribution of COVID-19 infection and mortality rates and economic impacts by race, ethnicity, class, and geography.

Mental health service providers are facing heightened demand for help even as staff members have been falling ill and becoming unavailable. And social distancing rules require those seeking counseling services to connect via telehealth, creating both opportunities and challenges to connection. Community-based organizations (CBOs) can be a critical resource in advancing community mental health at this time.

Connections to Care (C2C) — a ThriveNYC program managed by NYC Opportunity in partnership with the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that integrates mental health support into the work of CBOs — has been mobilizing to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. C2C CBOs already have meaningful relationships with communities who face high risk of infection, job loss, and other harms related to COVID-19. These CBOs and their mental health provider (MHP) partners report that the skills and strategies they have developed through C2C have helped to prepare them to respond to the heightened challenges their communities now face.

As most providers have shifted services to remote delivery, they have reached out to current and former participants and other community members, conducting wellness checks and identifying needs. The HOPE Program, a CBO that delivers workforce services, is integrating pre-existing psychoeducation sessions into an online job training class to help participants cope with stress and anxiety. Additionally, a youth services CBO — the Hetrick-Martin Institute — has moved a range of mental health counseling groups online, such as their expressive arts group. They are also adapting a bereavement support group for online delivery.

Staff skills in motivational interviewing, screening, Mental Health First Aid, and psychoeducation have helped CBO staff perform outreach and provide comprehensive support at this critical time. C2C CBOs and MHPs have also adapted referral pathways to a new telemental health environment, working together to make it possible for community members to connect with a clinician quickly, when they need to. Staff at The Door, a youth services provider, report that mental health support is currently among the most frequently requested services they provide, and staff feel better equipped to respond because of C2C.

One of the most important components of C2C in addressing these new challenges has been the program’s focus on staff coaching and support. C2C providers are continuing to provide vital one-on-one and group coaching and support to CBO staff, usually provided by a clinician. This coaching and support helps staff members, who are dealing with their own COVID-19-related pressures, to process their new roles and adapt their service delivery. C2C program managers at the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a reentry employment CBO, have shared their expertise with colleagues throughout CEO’s national network who are facing new mental health needs, providing technical assistance around facilitating support groups.

Since its launch in March 2016, C2C providers have reached more than 41,000 community members with 1,700 trained staff members. These service providers are now rising to meet the new challenges presented by COVID-19 and are continuing to support their communities with innovative solutions where they are needed most.

To learn more about C2C, click here. You can also access a newly released implementation guide based on C2C from the RAND Corporation and NYC DOHMH: “Helpers in Plain Sight: A Guide to Implementing Mental Health Task Sharing in Community-Based Organizations.”

Nonprofit organization working with City agencies, philanthropy, and community-based partners to advance initiatives that improve the lives of New Yorkers.

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