Meeting behavioral health needs during the COVID-19 pandemic

Telehealth, community partnerships keep kids and families connected
Tue, 08/11/2020 - 11:00am

    There is no disputing that the easy access to behavioral health services in the Boothbay Region’s schools has led to positive results for students and their families. But with the schools and school-based health clinics closed due to COVID-19, Maine Behavioral Healthcare’s Integrated Behavioral Health Clinicians embedded within Lincoln Medical Partners as well as the Boothbay Schools Student Health Center have relied on technology and established community relations to stay connected with children and their families.

    The ability to leverage technology and connect via secure computer or telephone, otherwise known as Telehealth, has been beneficial to both children and parents who need emotional support for ongoing issues or need additional help to cope with anxiety that has been magnified during the pandemic.

    “I’ve been talking with people more about anxiety, stress, and anticipatory grief,’’ said Lisa Carbone, LCSW at Lincoln Medical Partners’ Family Care Center in Boothbay Harbor “People have been anticipating loss, whether it’s losing people they love to this disease, losing connections with friends and teachers, losing a job, having to close a business or not being able to be with family. The lack of mobility around the community has magnified our feelings of isolation, but every time I talk to someone who is struggling, I can’t help but notice the strengths they are using as they learn to adapt and connect differently.”

    Carbone and Heather Norris, LCSW, are active in the school-based health center and have also been seeing adult patients. Each has found that Telehealth has its merit, including a level of flexibility that does not exist with a scheduled office appointment. Together, they’ve conducted more than 400 Telehealth visits from mid-March through the end of July.

    “Moms who are home with their kids can access me privately in their cars or maybe while walking their dog on a trail,’’ said Carbone. “A person on a lobster boat can connect with me and not miss a day on the job. While an in-person visit eliminates some distractions, we’ve been able to stay connected through telehealth – and we are able to see each other’s faces and facial expressions, which is difficult while wearing masks.”

    “Keeping in touch with the older kids who are more independent and online with their own devices has been much easier,” Norris said. “I met with a good handful of students regularly. Some preferred to talk on the phone, others preferred the Zoom meetings. Three were others who became too overwhelmed by their life situations and could not continue counseling.”

    Isolation has been one of the most pressing issues facing school-aged children, Carbone said. She explained that older kids gauge their place in the world through social circles, and their self-concept is connected to their social group.

    “They compare themselves to their same-age peer group and where they are in the social structure,’’ she said. “In some of the areas with little or no technology, the kids can be cut off from their social circle and their schedules tend to become irregular. It seems that kids who are lacking structure tend to struggle more.”

    What’s added to some of the challenges for families, Norris said, is that home is not only where the heart is, it’s where everything is during a pandemic. School, doctor’s appointments, and recreation moved inside the home. Add to that the return of older siblings from college and a parent who can no longer work and what used to be a comfortable place to escape no longer exists.

    “The normal home life has definitely been interrupted,’’ Norris said.

    For many, the availability of services during the pandemic has made a significant difference. Both Carbone and Norris have seen more patients thanks to Telehealth. They’ve also added new patients to their roster during the pandemic.

    Norris said some of the more rewarding aspects of the job during this time is working on solutions for families who have experienced multiple changes during COVID-19.

    “For parents, it’s definitely difficult,” she said. “Things like keeping up a routine and maintaining a bed time is no longer that simple. In other situations, parents have worked through the pandemic and younger teens have become the child care provider because the daycares were closed. Being able to stay connected to them and offer support has been important and gratifying.”

    Along with the touchpoints of Telehealth, the Integrated Behavioral Health Clinicians have been sending information to families on a regular basis. Topics they have covered include Coping with COVID, how children process things during a pandemic and setting boundaries to accomplish tasks. Each has also received calls from their colleagues in the school-based health centers where they typically spend time in an effort to make sure that the student’s needs are met.

    “The Boothbay region is really strong for social-emotional learning and there is a lot of staff resources along with us being integrated into the health clinic team,” Norris said. “I think we’ve done well with the students we’ve built a rapport with. I hope we will be back in school in the fall, and I’m interested in connecting with the kids we’ve missed to see how they are doing.”

    While what happens during an in-person connection is irreplaceable, both clinicians believe that Telehealth has a place in the future of behavioral health services.

    “Virtual support groups, virtual treatment groups, specialty therapy are all options to explore,’’ Carbone said. “If someone has experienced trauma and needs to address this, he or she may be able to access a specialty provider or support group via Telehealth that one might not otherwise be able to access.”

    If you are interested in learning more about the services at Maine Behavioral Healthcare and the Integrated Behavioral Health Program in the Boothbay region, please call The Family Care Center at 633-7820.