Hundreds of mental health workers who work with the region’s most at-risk people are now finding themselves cut off from human contact with the patients they once served.
But Jeff Thomas, chief executive officer of Frontier Behavioral Health, said Friday the shift to reaching people electronically won’t diminish the nonprofit’s mission at a time when clients need it most.
“The vast majority of the clients receive mental public health funding through Medicaid,” Thomas said. “These are people who by definition are struggling and are marginalized. They’re lacking in resources in addition to having mental health issues.”
Frontier’s employees, who total more than 700, are used to working closely with the clients they serve. That can include home visits to make sure patients are taking their medications, workers who travel along with law enforcement officers to care for people who may have chronic mental health needs and visitors to the nonprofit’s outpatient clinics for traditional therapeutic sessions. Frontier treats between 5,000 and 6,000 people monthly through those visits, according to the organization.
All of that work is being channeled to the telephone as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Frontier will remain open for business on Monday when it shifts its services to electronic delivery to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.
“A lot of our clients are expressing gratitude because they’d rely on public transportation to get here and they were worried about getting sick,” said Esa Lariviere, a clinical director at Frontier who oversees programs including adult outpatient care and intensive treatment for people experiencing chronic mental health conditions.
The organization already has a 24/7 crisis line that will continue to operate for the general public, Thomas said. New patients still will be screened using ordinary procedures, but then they’ll be getting a phone call from a therapist, rather than a scheduled appointment to meet in an office.
Lariviere said that setup may actually speed up the treatment process for some clients, by requiring them to start adapting to life outside a therapists’ office.
“It inadvertently forces us to take that next step in therapy,” Lariviere said. “You may not be in that therapist’s office, but you have a coach on the phone, and you can create that safe space in your life.”
Clinicians still will be able to authorize mental health prescriptions over the phone, she said, and local pharmacies have stepped up by promising to mail medications directly to customers who need it. Frontier has purchased lock boxes to protect prescriptions for some of their most at-risk patients, Lariviere said, and for others they’ve bought cards with cellphone minutes to ensure low-income patients can reach their provider for therapy sessions.
The nonprofit also is looking at ways to continue its relationship with law enforcement officers, including using the telephone to assist in partnership with police officers and deputies who will continue in-person contact with people who need them.
Crisis responders still will be available, but instead of meeting patients inside the home they may ask to speak to family members outside a residence, in a driveway or on the sidewalk to prevent the spread of disease, Lariviere added.
Frontier also will continue to operate its free-standing, inpatient clinics, Thomas said, and is increasing the number of staff able to handle calls to the 211 Washington hotline providing information on mental health assistance.
Thomas said it’s important for clients, and the general public, to know that necessary mental health services will continue to be provided in a time of increased anxiety due to the coronavirus.
“In a time like this, our services are more necessary than ever,” he said. “Our clients in the community rely on us.”
If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, Frontier Behavioral Health operates a 24/7 crisis line for people in Spokane, Adams, Ferry, Lincoln, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties and can be reached at (877) 266-1818.
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