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With COVID Cares phone line, Minnesota mental health professionals offer support in time of crisis

healthcare worker
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
The call line, which launched in April, was first designed to support health care workers, but has since expanded to offer its services to any Minnesotan in need of mental health support.
Jordan Robinson was looking for a way to give back. A licensed psychologist and president-elect of the Minnesota Psychological Association, he was in search of an opportunity to use his skills to help others cope in this unprecedented time of stress and trauma. 

When he heard about COVID Cares Support Service, a statewide phone line offering free, anonymous support for people experiencing stress and anxiety staffed by a volunteer team of licensed mental health professionals, Robinson was excited to sign up for a couple of weekly shifts. 

“Sometimes people just need temporary help or even just someone to talk to,” he said. “This sounded like the perfect thing, a great way that I could be a listening ear, to help people work through their emotions.” 

The call line, which launched in April, was first designed to support health care workers, but has since expanded to offer its services to any Minnesotan in need of mental health support. Over 90 volunteers will take calls from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week through Aug. 31. If the need continues, the service may be extended. 

A partnership between the Minnesota Psychiatric Society, the Minnesota Psychological Association, the Minnesota Association of Black Psychologists, and Mental Health Minnesota, COVID Cares Support Service was inspired by similar volunteer-staffed support lines in other states, explained Trisha Stark, legislative chair of the Minnesota Psychological Association and one of the program’s organizers. 

Jordan Robinson
Jordan Robinson
“I had heard that many mental health professionals had volunteered in New York state to provide supportive services,” Stark said. “It seemed to me, ‘Why don’t we have that in Minnesota?’ So I spoke to some colleagues and we decided to get something going here.”

The call for volunteers was distributed earlier this spring through a number of the state’s mental health networks, and the response from mental health professionals like Robinson was impressive. 

“It was literally a flood of volunteers,” said Linda Vukelich, executive director of the Minnesota Psychiatric Society. “I just put out a couple of emails about this opportunity to the Mental Health Legislative Network and people immediately said yes.” 

Volunteers have a range of mental health backgrounds

Vukelich said that phone line volunteers come from a range of mental health backgrounds and include psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed marriage and family therapists, clinical counselors, licensed alcohol and drug counselors and clinical social workers. 

Linda Vukelich
Linda Vukelich
Staffing the support line is a significant commitment, she said. “We’ve asked volunteers to commit to at least one hour a week through the end of August. Many have committed to working on the line for as many as five hours a week. The idea that someone would be willing to commit their entire summer to this is pretty amazing.”

Stark said that COVID Cares volunteers have told her working on the phone line has been a good experience. “The callers are extremely appreciative,” she said. “They tell volunteers that having the space to talk about whatever is on their mind is so helpful. And our volunteers tell us the time they’re spending on the phone helps them feel like they are doing something to help people cope with this stressful situation that we are all in.”

Robinson spends one hour a week answering the phone on the COVID Cares line, and is available at any time as a backup for volunteers, assisting if they need extra help with managing a caller in crisis or providing support for volunteers who are experiencing vicarious stress.

“For me, working on the COVID Cares Line is both selfish and selfless,” Robinson said. “I like being busy. I need to multitask. So this satisfies a little bit of that.” He also appreciates having an opportunity to put his experience working with patients who have experienced trauma toward the greater good: “For me it’s an easy way to give back. I can handle a good amount of stress, and I’m happy to help other people figure out ways that they can cope.”

Expanded services

In the first days of the pandemic, the state’s health care workers seemed to be taking the brunt of the pressure and stress created by the virus’ steady spread. In the early days, the support line was designed specifically for health care workers. The idea was that since it was staffed by mental health professionals with experience working in health-care environments, volunteers would have greater understanding of the unique pressures their callers were facing. 

Trisha Stark
Trisha Stark
“We felt this call line would be a really good service to provide for people working in hospitals or in health care, or other front-line workers,” Stark said. “We wanted them to have another way they could get support — because sometimes you don’t want to talk to your friends or family or co-workers about what’s going on in your head. You need to talk to someone who can be there and listen and provide you with strategies to deal with what you are experiencing now, someone who doesn’t have a personal stake in your mental health.”

The approach worked well, Robinson said: “Volunteers already had this expertise in health-care settings, and we also have the mental-health expertise to help manage the stress and anxiety and depression that comes along with health care work at this time.” 

But it quickly became clear that COVID Cares had the capacity to help more than just health care workers, and as the weeks of quarantine added up, and civil unrest spiked in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, organizers decided to expand the service to offer support to all Minnesotans, not just people who work in health care. 

While the original intent of the line was a good idea, Vukelich said that organizers were happy to offer the service to any Minnesotan experiencing the stress and emotional toll of these difficult times. “We’re now serving the larger community and we’re hoping to do more,” she said. 

They want everyone — from front-line workers like grocery store personnel to delivery drivers to parents struggling with caring for children and working from home to individuals concerned about substance abuse — to feel like COVID Cares can be a source of support in times of stress. 

Willie Garrett, a psychologist in private practice and president of the Minnesota Psychological Association, said that the entire state is impacted by the events that are going on in the world right now. 

“Everything is happening at once,” he said. “The pandemic and the George Floyd situation just creates a perfect storm for mental health providers as well as the people of the state.” 

He added that he fears civil unrest combined with worries about COVID’s larger toll may have a negative impact on the mental health of people who until now seemed to be weathering the storm. 

“There are a lot of people who were doing well a month or so ago but they may not be doing so well now. I think we’ll be heading into a flood of mental health needs in the next few weeks. We still have not seen the second wave of mental health response to these crises, so a resource like this line could be really helpful.” 

No appointments necessary, no questions asked

Shannah Mulvihill, executive director of Mental Health Minnesota, said that COVID Cares could be a good resource for people in this time of crisis — it’s a place a person can turn to at a moment’s notice. No appointments are necessary, no questions are asked: The support comes without judgment and no strings attached. Mental Health Minnesota also operates MN Warmline, a peer-to-peer mental health recovery and support line. 

Shannah Mulvihill
Shannah Mulvihill
On the COVID Cares Support Service, Mulvihill said, “We don’t ask for anything at all from our callers. We do ask for the county they live in just to collect data, but otherwise callers don’t have to give us their name or share their insurance information or anything like that. There is no money or personal information exchanged.” 

The simplified process was intentional, Mulvihill added. Organizers figured that many callers might not have experience seeking mental health care. They wanted to remove any burdens by making calling COVID Cares as easy as possible. 

“We wanted this to be a safe and anonymous way to approach mental health care for a first-time user,” she said. 

And the fact that COVID Cares is free should also appeal to potential callers, Vukelich said. 

“These days, unfortunately, a lot of people are furloughed or have been laid off. This service isn’t tied to insurance, so we are available to you whether your insurance is active or not. We are available for the entire community, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. It is a community service that’s now available to the entire community.”

Support, not therapy

While COVID Cares Support Service can provide key assistance to callers, organizers want to make it clear the line is designed to provide support, not therapy. That distinction is important, Stark explained, because state regulations limit the way therapeutic services can be provided. Because volunteers provide support, rather than diagnosis or treatment, they can legally offer their services without specific licensure. 

“We are not technically providing therapeutic services,” she explained. “It is more supportive, active listening, helping callers think through different strategies about how they can manage a situation.” 

Robinson, who practices clinical neuropsychology at M Health Fairview St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul, knows the difference between therapy and support. “This service is designed to provide support and referral,” he said. “It is not supposed to be a substitute for therapy. What we’re doing here is something different, creating an in-between, supportive space where callers can go to vent and let off steam. If they need something more, we can help them get the help they need.” 

To speak with a COVID Cares volunteer, an individual can go to FastTrackerMN.org and click on the COVID Cares Support Services link at the top of the page or go directly to the Minnesota Psychiatric Society’s COVID Cares page. A schedule complete with volunteers’ names and phone numbers is available there. 

Robinson volunteers for the service on Sunday mornings. He said that his conversations with callers generally last 30-40 minutes. Earlier in the COVID crisis, callers tended to have a more urgent tone, he said, but as the pandemic has progressed in the state, the number of calls during his shift has gone down, and the people on the other end of the line tend to have less anxiety in their voices. 

“Early on, there was a mixture of fear — we didn’t know a lot about it in the first few weeks and we all felt scared,” he said. Robinson’s first callers were all health-care workers, so their concerns tended to fall into specific categories: “If they were working in units with COVID patients, or if they had a lot of patients coming in without a diagnosis, there was some fear there. There was also a lot of stress around PPE shortages.”

Robinson said that in recent weeks, his callers have tended to seem less frightened than they did at the beginning when there were so many unanswered questions and equipment was in short supply. And so far, he hasn’t spoken to anyone whose anxiety has spun out of control. 

“Nobody I’ve talked to has been on the severe end of the mental health spectrum,” Robinson said. “I’d put them all in the mild-to-moderate category. They’re more stressed than desperate. They are feeling exasperated, but they are not at that overwhelmed, ‘I need immediate treatment’ level yet.” 

Getting the word out

While COVID Cares Support Service has been well received by callers, organizers say that there is still plenty of capacity to serve more Minnesotans in need of mental health support. They’d like to get the word out that there are plenty of volunteers ready to take their calls. 

“On most shifts we have two mental health professionals available,” Mulvihill said. “If the first one is busy, you can always call the second one.” And if expanded outreach draws more callers to the line, she’s confident that they could quickly recruit more volunteers: “I feel pretty optimistic that if we end up needing a third person each hour we could fill that spot pretty quickly. When the initial call went out for volunteers we had around 100 mental health professionals who said, just like that, ‘I want to help.’ I’m confident that we could quickly fill any open spots.” 

Garrett, president of the Minnesota Association of Black Psychologists, is working with his colleagues to get word out about the service to organizations that address the mental health needs of Minnesotans of color. 

“Communities of color have suffered a great deal in this crisis,” he said. “A lot of our front-line workers are people of color. A lot of our state’s meat-processing plants that have been hit hard by this virus employ a lot of people of color, especially the Hmong and Somali. We need to make sure that they know this service exists so they can get the support they need.” 

He said he also wants to recruit more volunteers of color to staff the line and let community members know that the line is there and available for anyone who needs mental health support.

Totally anonymous

“I want them to know that it is totally anonymous, that there is no connection to any insurance company or to the police, so that they know it is safe, that their call won’t be reported to anyone.”

The COVID crisis was enough to tax many people’s mental health, Mulvihill said; adding the emotional toll from the recent social unrest in response to the death of George Floyd may push some over the edge. 

“People can manage for a certain amount of time with the stressors that we’re all facing right now,” she said, “but it keeps piling on. I was reading an article about how families are so stressed now — child care centers aren’t open; kids can’t play with their friends. I have a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old. They’re constantly saying, ‘Mom, what can I do?’ and I still have work to do — we’re all so overwhelmed, and many of us may be reaching the boiling point.” 

Just the other day, Garrett heard about a COVID Cares call from a woman who had just gotten off work and needed to discuss the stresses of her day. 

“She said she needed to talk to someone before she went home to be with her kids,” Garrett recalled. “She needed to sort through some things. She didn’t want to bring all of that home with her. She was in a high-exposure job and she was facing some clear stress about that.” 

Robinson said that many of his callers have told him that they appreciate having an opportunity to talk through their stress and anxiety with a mental health professional. 

“They say they’re glad it’s a quick thing, that they don’t have to make an appointment and wait for someone to be available. The only other option out there is a crisis line, and if a caller isn’t in acute crisis, that’s not what they need. This is a good intermediate step for someone who’s feeling under stress in the moment but not quite overwhelmed. They just need someone to talk to who can listen and understands what they are going through. That’s a service we can provide, and I’m glad that we can all be here to provide that.”

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