As COVID rages on, WNY mental health organizations adapt how and what they provide

Aug 18, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizations that address mental health concerns to adapt. How do you meet a growing need to treat depression, anxiety and trauma? Telehealth is being relied on more than ever in all Western New York communities.


Rural Outreach Center
Credit WBFO news file

Many organizations offering services for mental health offered telehealth before COVID-19 hit. But they mostly operated out of an office like environment. People came to them.

“But you know, that weekend in March that we knew we had to do something different required everybody being able to log on virtually,” said Cindy Voelker, Associate CEO of Spectrum Health and Human Services. “Everybody had to have access to a phone, everybody being able to have access to their electronic health record, which luckily we are all electronic and no paper.”

Voelker said they had a relatively quick turnaround in March setting up staff at home. For the most part, they’re staying remote now.

“We probably brought about 25% of our staff back into the office to see people who really need to be seen in person or that we haven't met yet and want to see face to face,” Voelker said. “So we really had to turn the business upside down pretty quickly.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Buffalo and Erie County focuses on support groups for families living with mental illness.

Executive Director Michelle Brooks said they’ve pivoted to offering five monthly group meetings through Zoom.

“When we were in person, we were only able to offer two (a month) in two different locations,” Brooks said.

Typically, NAMI has used free or inexpensive spaces like churches and community centers. Brooks said meeting online has some cost benefits.

“We've even had people from outside the Buffalo area join in the groups. And that has really expanded the opportunity for families who are basically stuck at home to get that support and help navigating services on a more frequent basis,” Brooks said. “And they have more opportunity to so that's been a really positive outcome, not only for offering services, but for going forward.”

NAMI is working on a collaborative grant with Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, who is offering a space for people to come to use their technology. 

NAMI’s next goal is to have education classes online. Those classes are confidential and free.

But because their staff is made up about two and a half people and is very reliant on volunteers, Brooks said that will take a little more time.

“There's a positive aspect to this. And we can reach people in the city, in rural areas, people who can't, for physical reasons, attend meetings,” Brooks said. "We're still very new moving from more of just a grassroots totally volunteer organization to try to expand our services." 

One organization that has their finger on the pulse of Western New York rural residents is the Rural Outreach Center (ROC). Located in East Aurora, Executive Director Frank Cerny said they’ve been inundated with people needing assistance. They’ve added to their staff during this pandemic.

“Not so much the people that we regularly see but a whole new group of people,” Cerny said. “People who, in fact, a year ago would have been donors/contributors to what we do.”

The ROC wears many hats. Financial guidance. Counseling. Play therapy for children.

With a third of the ROC’s participants come from Cattaraugus County and the ROC operating out of a tightly spaced large trailer, telehealth became the primary option at the start of the pandemic.

“What we're finding with telehealth is that there are some people who in fact are responding better under those circumstances,” Cerny said. “Maybe they feel more comfortable, secure in their home environment than coming into an office. But there's another whole group of people who are very reluctant to take advantage of it. And then other people that even though we and they struggle to do it, it's simply inadequate. And I think we're kidding ourselves if we think moving forward, this is going to be the panacea for addressing mental health issues, particularly people in our area, the rural areas where transportation to get to services is a big issue.”

Cerny said they’ve been fortunate to receive support from the community and individual donors like the Pegula Fund this year, but to continue addressing the increasing emotional and mental stress of the community, they have to help people obtain their basic needs.

“We're not usually a food pantry, but we've been forced to do much more of that,” Cerny said. “And the reason we chose to do that-- one is there's a need, but also because we can offer a whole bunch of other services. So when people come for food, we can offer other services and that's been really helpful.”

Cerny added there’s major broadband issues throughout the area, making it impossible to reach some with a lack of internet access.

For now, COVID looks to have permanently pushed mental health providers like the ROC, Spectrum Health and NAMI to a future hybrid model of remote and in-person meetings.

“We've seen an increase in that demand, and we really knew that it was important to keep those services in place," Voelker said. "We also serve a lot of people with a lot of high needs in the mental health world and a lot people that are at risk for a lot of things. So it was also a safety issue. But I would say our staff were able to, with the proper support, make that transition pretty easily and now a lot of them actually like working from home.”

But telehealth is just a piece of the many services still needed.

“There is now I think a need for people to have some more contact and more structure and support. So we're definitely seeing that the longer it goes on, the longer people are trying to cope with everything," Voelker said. "We're trying to adapt as each kind of day we go along and see what the needs are of the people that we're serving and working with.”