SARASOTA, FL – In order to extend telehealth services for high-risk and under-served populations, three area foundations have contributed funds for laptops and telehealth accounts so that therapists from First Step of Sarasota / Coastal Behavioral Healthcare can continue serving clients in the face of the coronavirus crisis. The Lee & Bob Peterson Foundation has contributed $15,000 with an additional grant of $26,000 from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation COVID-19 Response Initiative.
According to U.S. officials, the Disaster Distress Helpline – the national hotline that provides emergency help to those suffering emotional distress – saw an increase of 891% in call volume in March, as compared with March of 2019. And a new poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 45% of adults say the pandemic has affected their mental health. Yet, with social distancing recommended, those who need help are isolated from private and group sessions with therapists and counselors as the stay-at-home order continues.
“Just as individuals with pre-existing physical illnesses are more likely to get physically ill from the coronavirus, people whose mental health is compromised are at greater risk of experiencing worsening mental illness as a result of the coronavirus – no matter what their mental illness may be,” said PJ Brooks, Chief Clinical Services Officer of First Step / Coastal Behavioral.
Staff members at First Step / Coastal Behavioral are reporting increased levels of stress due to loss of jobs and health fears as well as isolation resulting from social distancing recommendations. Area youth are suffering from boredom and the isolation is particularly acute with this age group. In order to be able to provide crucial mental health services in a manner that is safe, therapists and prescribers at First Step / Coastal are utilizing telemedicine for outpatient clients of all ages through individual and group therapy as well as psychiatric services and medication-assisted therapy.
In total, there are 45 clinicians and prescribers using purchased telehealth accounts plus 10 student assistants connecting with youth remotely. At this time, there are approximately 1,510 individuals receiving clinical services while the student assistance program is serving 400 students through Zoom. The family life intervention program is working with 30 youth via telephone.
Telemedicine is extremely important at this time as it allows staff and clients to be safe while continuing their clinical work together. Teletherapy eliminates the stress and time of travel – clients can access mental health and substance abuse treatment without leaving their home or even their room. Also, given the comfort and ease all ages now feel with smartphones and other electronic devices, telehealth may improve the process as the client might open up faster and respond better to treatment over the phone or through video-conferencing. Plus, it removes the need to wait in a public waiting room.
“The short-term goal of telehealth is to help our clients who receive treatment for behavioral, mental health or substance use disorders make it through this trying time,” said First Step CEO Gwen MacKenzie. “In the longer term, telehealth will become an important tool that expands the resources available to serve individuals in need of behavioral health services. We are so grateful to the Lee & Bob Peterson Foundation, Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Barancik Foundation for stepping up and making these resources available for us to bolster our telehealth program.”
“For more than 15 years, my parents – Lee and Bob Peterson – worked to raise funds for and awareness of mental health causes and issues,” added Jeffrey Peterson, president of the Lee & Bob Peterson Foundation. “In times of crisis, those with mental health and addiction disorders are even more at risk. Through this investment in hardware and access to telehealth platforms, First Step and Coastal Behavioral Healthcare will be able to continue their critical, lifesaving work, even when they can’t serve clients in person.”
The grants from the COVID-19 Response Initiative are to relieve strain on key health and human-service organizations that are aiding residents hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.
First Step of Sarasota is a nonprofit substance abuse treatment center with detox, residential and outpatient programs. Visit fsos.org. Coastal Behavioral Healthcare offers innovative and comprehensive mental health and substance abuse programs for adults and children, including at-risk youth and those who are low-income. Go to coastalbh.org.