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Philanthropy Thought Leadership

Mental health in the wake of COVID-19

By Erin Dreiling, marketing and communications manager, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

As the COVID-19 pandemic has caused dual economic and health crises, it has impacted one facet of well-being we don’t often talk about: mental health. While everyone in our community faces different challenges, the associated effect on mental health is an unsurprising fallout from the combination of social isolation, unemployment stress and a multitude of other factors. The Kaiser Family Foundation has found that nearly half (45%) of adults have reported their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus.

With the onset of COVID-19 and the disproportionate impact it is having in communities of color, it is imperative that mental health needs are supported for people in the region. Prior to COVID-19, the state of Georgia faced a significant shortage of mental health professionals ranking 48 out of 50 states on Mental Health Workforce Availability. We face a perfect storm of mental health struggles, with not enough providers to help.

We recently spoke with two of the nonprofits serving our region’s mental health needs about the ways that the pandemic has impacted the people they serve and they ways they do business.

Odyssey Family Counseling Center provides mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment to children, teens and adults and prevention and education services in schools and community settings. Charles Releford, Jr. joined the organization as executive director in December, shortly before the pandemic began. A trained therapist, he says that the organization was planning to offer telehealth in an effort to increase accessibility – it does not require travel – but the pandemic brought the change about much more quickly. No matter what happens with COVID-19, Odyssey will continue to offer virtual sessions.

While we don’t know yet the full impact of COVID-19 on mental health, we do know that schools closing disrupted learning, as well as school-based supports including access to mental health services.

The bulk of the individuals served by Odyssey – around 75% – are students in school. Odyssey has emphasized seamless continuation of care. The students are still in therapy, and Odyssey has seen increased needs and referrals. Releford says that Odyssey’s strength is its people – “We have more work to go around than we can do, but we have lots of young, energetic, diverse folks and are lucky enough to have staff that can speak to parents and school administration.”

Releford recognizes that his staff also faces increased stress. “We have to make sure that our staff takes time for self-care to make sure we have staying power. As therapists struggle with social unrest they must be careful not to let that bleed over into the care relationship. Many are members of Black and brown communities, serving Black and brown communities. It’s our role to be deliberate and have the conversation in a therapeutic way.”

Shannon Georgecink, executive director of Metropolitan Counseling Services, an organization that provides low-cost mental health services aimed at everyday people, also emphasized that the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the organization forward. “The possibilities are open now,” she says. “What we feared in the economic fallout did not happen. We received money from the COVID-19 Fund and other funders and now the flood of clients is coming. The funding was critical, because look at what we can do because our fear is gone. We can worry about top notch service and innovation, not payroll and rent. Mental health for underserved populations is expensive, and it can’t really fund itself, especially in rural areas. We transformed on March 13 and our existing clients didn’t miss a beat.”

Metropolitan Counseling services also offers training for mental health professionals on secondary trauma approaches and community resiliency. The organization recently trained its full staff on suicide prevention and provided mental health assistance for a local small business hit hard by a crisis. “We saw convergence around strengthening our workforce training pipeline in Georgia, which is exciting. We’ve partnered with The Giving Kitchen for years, but partnerships are coming more to the forefront. Other agencies have caught wind of our expertise and we are now consulting on training, staff well-being and best practices,” says Georgecink.

For both organizations, innovation and quick adaptation have been key in the wake of COVID-19 as they continue to serve the Atlanta region’s mental health needs.

“I am kept up at night by keeping our battleship floating in this environment,” says Releford. “I think we will get through it as we shift to telehealth and work with new populations, which is what it is all about.”

Photo credit: Odyssey Family Counseling Center


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