By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

For a quarter of a century, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge has been providing mental health services throughout the region but perhaps never has it been so complex to meet clients’ needs.

Services have continued throughout the pandemic uninterrupted thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of the CCDBR negotiating a labyrinth of technical challenges.  Rather than traditional face-to-face meetings, the overwhelming majority of sessions are being conducted through telemedicine, a video option that is becoming increasingly widespread.

“It has been our lifeline for several people who were already in therapy with our services and wanted to continue or people who have experienced difficulty due to (COVID-19) such as social isolation or maybe they’ve got into some financial difficulties because of loss of wages,” said Stephanie Sterling, director of CCDBR’s Maternity, Adoption and Mental Health Services Department.

Sterling said the agency is also seeing clients one day a week in person with appropriate social distancing protocols, as well as temperature checks and mask requirements.

“This has been good for those who do not have access to electronic means for teleconferencing or for people who are just not comfortable with (the video) method of therapy,” Sterling said. “Some people want the face to face (meeting).”

Telehealth allows a licensed clinician to meet with the client via a HIPA compliant platform either via a smart phone or computer. Once the appointment is set up, an invite is emailed to the client and at the scheduled time the client clicks on the link.

“Some people like it because they have transportation challenges or live in geographically isolated areas,” Sterling said. “Prior to now they did not have  access to therapy licensed clinical social workers so that is something really positive for those who live in more rural areas of diocese.”

Admittedly skeptical, therapist Alfred Robelot said the video conferencing is working better than he anticipated.

“Once you get to know the person pretty good, especially if you have seen them before in the regular way, it is fine,” said Robelot, who has been a contracted social worker for CCDBR for more than a decade. “I guess it takes a little longer to get to know people but I was surprised at how much we can get done.

“It is well worth it for the client.”

But it does not come without drawbacks, Robelot said, adding that connecting with clients video adds another layer of difficulty. He said eye contact is not as clear and he is unable to see much of the client’s body language, especially if the “cell phone is facing the ceiling.”

“The client gets a little bit of a degraded experience,” he said.

However, he emphasized therapy is as important now as it was before the pandemic. He said most people go to therapy because they are dealing with results of childhood drama that have affected their relationship and plays into anxiety, depression and their health.

Robelot said his clients are reacting to the pandemic in a variety of ways, from taking it in stride to others who are experiencing difficulties.

“It affects people in different ways,” he said. “For some it never comes up. It runs the gamut.”

Sterling said the number of clients has surprisingly dropped by nearly one-third of its normal case load of 75 before the pandemic.

“The only thing I can think is people are not aware we are continuing to provide the service,” Sterling said.

She believes that people are struggling mentally during the pandemic, citing the toll caused by self-isolation. She said some families might be struggling because the children are attending school online, the parents might be working remotely or they have been financially impacted because of a change in work status.

“We do know that domestic and child abuse and neglect go up during and after a disaster or some type of traumatic event,” Sterling said. “The concern is that with children not in school the people would have normally reported abuse or neglect are not able to interact with or see the children.”

Sterling said the agency has given several presentations in the community, providing tips about coping with COVID-19 and self-care (see insert).

“Most people will go through a traumatic event and will learn and grow from it but there are some who will not and will need to seek professional help,” she said. “If people have some tool of what they can do when they go through some type of traumatic event they are more likely to grow and learn and become more resilient.”

Sterling stressed the agency’s behavioral health services are available to the public and are not COVID specific. Many private insurances as well as Medicaid are accepted.

For those in need or without insurance, they can pay on a sliding scale with fees well below established market rates for professional counseling.

Counseling is available for couples, individuals and families.

Call 225-336-8708 for more information to set up an appointment with one of the four clinicians providing remote therapy or the two clinicians who are seeing clients in the office.

COPING WITH STRESS

• Develop Structure and Routine

• Create a Work Space that is separate from your family space

• Set Limits Around Work Times

• Spend Time Outside

• Find Ways to Connect with Others

• Create a menu of self-care activities 

• Take a break from media coverage

• Ask for help if you feel overwhelmed