Mental health and substance use issues don’t take a break in a pandemic – so neither do the therapists at Catholic Charities’ clinics.

Through an agile, largely online response, staff  at the 10 Villa Maria Community Resource Clinics have connected with about 80 percent of their clients. At the Fallsway clinic inside Our Daily Bread Employment Center, that’s about 80 of the 100 or so clients who were receiving therapy services before the outbreak of COVID-19, most of whom are homeless, living in shelters or on the street.

“It’s no small effort,” said Erin Moyer, director of the Fallsway clinic. “Every person on my team is outside of the building looking for clients, or calling and texting.”

Shifting to a virtual approach

In response to safety guidance, therapy sessions have moved online – often to HIPAA-compliant, secure Zoom video conferences – and clients have responded well to the change.

“People have been really surprised they’ve been able to access Zoom much easier than we thought they would,” Moyer said. “I expected many more complaints about how the video doesn’t work as well [as in-person], but people actually really like it. It feels more flexible, and if you already have an established relationship, people appreciate the outreach.”

Each Fallstaff therapist spends at least one day per week at the clinic, working remotely the rest of the time, and an administrative assistant is onsite daily to sanitize the space and facilitate sessions. The team set up a Google Chromebook at the clinic to make sure all clients – including those without phones – can continue receiving services. At times, clients on the clinic Chromebook are connected to a therapist just on the other side of the wall, an occasionally frustrating reality necessitated by current health guidance.

Making this system work has taken support from all corners. One staff member’s parents found a box of now-scarce N95 face masks, and sent them for use at the clinic. Catholic Charities’ IT department developed easy-to-follow instructions for Zoom, with pictures. Colleagues across Catholic Charities’ 80 programs are passing on tips related to remote services, including how therapists can share their screens with clients to continue using visual resources. Therapists have had to adjust to bumps in the process, such as when one client had to delay a session because she ran out of minutes on her phone plan.

“It’s really moving to see how everyone is working so hard and so creatively,” Moyer said. “The only clients we’ve lost are a few people who aren’t able to get to Our Daily Bread easily, and aren’t interested in signing into Zoom on the phone.”

Constructive conversations around COVID

The online sessions typically have not inhibited clients’ progress, although more of the conversations focus on COVID-19 and related issues, including how a client experiencing homelessness can access government agencies when the offices are closed.

Clients with substance use disorders are finding it can be just as easy to get drugs, but far harder to get the money to buy them, since odd jobs have largely dried up and fewer people are around to offer spare change. The clinic continues to offer medication-assisted treatment, but many more clients are now seeking inpatient care to manage their addictions, Moyer said. It’s true even as COVID-19 precautions create more steps to be cleared for treatment at medical facilities.

“When you’re ready, you’re ready,” she said of the desire to seek treatment. “It’s harder to get the money, but some of it has to do with: it’s a real crisis going on in the world, and that makes everyone reevaluate their lives.”