Approximately nine months after the COVID-19 virus was identified in the United States, Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) launched StrengthenME, an initiative designed to provide coping mechanisms for pandemic-related stress and anxiety before it becomes a more serious mental health issue.
According to Jessica Pollard, Ph.D, director of the Maine DHHS Office of Behavioral Health, the state recognized the need for mental health supports and immediately looked to expand existing services, such as the Intentional Peer Warm Line.
“We also launched new services, such as the Maine Frontline Warmline to support health care staff and first responders, and the NAMI Teen Text Line for youth,” Pollard said.
These supports were expanded after the state received a FEMA/SAMHSA Crisis Counseling Program grant, which allowed DHHS to bring in the state’s Mobile Crisis providers and a number of agencies employing community health outreach workers to reach disproportionately impacted communities and provide them with stress management support.
Pollard explained that the FEMA/SAMHSA Crisis Counseling Program model is strengths-based, anonymous and outreach-oriented with services conducted in non-traditional settings and designed to strengthen existing community support systems.
“COVID-19 has altered the model somewhat, but StrengthenME providers offer individual and group crisis support, basic supportive or educational contact, links and referrals to community resources and other services, and more,” Pollard said.
Staff members are trained to provide stress management techniques, relaxation exercises, time management tools, and similar resources to individuals.
To fulfill its mission, StrengthenME partnered with several organizations and agencies that serve a multi-generational and diverse population, including The Opportunity Alliance, NAMI Maine, Sweetser, Aroostook Mental Health Center, Healthy Living for ME, Wabanaki Health, and Wellness, Portland Minority Health and others.
Katie Carlson, community services director at Spectrum Generations, noted that the goals of StrengthenME “…aligned with the support we were providing our consumers on a daily basis,” and welcomed the opportunity to participate in the initiative. She cited combating social isolation as one of the organization’s aims.
Spectrum recognized that this initiative was a good fit with its Healthy Living for ME program, a sophisticated network that seeks ways to serve the mental and physical health needs of adults in Maine, according to Carlson.
“Healthy Living for ME is our Community Integrated Health Network that allows an organization to sign with one entity, yet receive services throughout the state of Maine via multiple community service providers,” she said.
Additionally, Carlson reported that participating in this program presented an opportunity for staff to receive additional training with a FEMA certified facilitator. Such training would improve services that benefit the community, particularly the elderly in the state.
“We employ social workers who have the skillset of listening to what a person is telling us they need and identifying additional resources consumers didn’t know we could help connect them with,” Carlson said. Staff has been able to put consumers in touch with support groups and open congregate dining in a way that allows participants to remain healthy during this pandemic.
Focused on social determinants of health, Spectrum helps its consumers with heating assistance, food resources, Medicare savings programs, and the Alzheimer’s respite program, Carlson pointed out.
“Within the population we serve the most, we see an increase of social isolation, a reduction in financial security, food and/or nutrition security, and medication management,” she said. “Our goal is to connect our consumers with the resources needed to counteract the negative effects the pandemic has had on our consumer base throughout the state of Maine.”
The Opportunity Alliance became another StrengthenME partner, bringing its strong phone infrastructure to the program. Karen Turgeon, LCSW, vice president of programs, explained that the Opportunity Alliance has been operating the 2-1-1 Maine system since 2006 and was well-equipped to act as a conduit for calls seeking emotional and other support.
This system also enables access to nurse triage to answer questions related to the virus.
Turgeon reported that trained staff will spend time on the phone assisting callers looking for health and human resources as well as those who are anxious and require another level of emotional support.
“We can arrange to connect them to the mobile team and other providers across the state. The mobile team historically has provided access to resources for people in crisis using a holistic approach,” she said. “We are committed and make sure to provide support and access to services, whether emotional or basic.”
As a Community Action Agency, the Opportunity Alliance provides heating, rent and social service assistance, and provides contact tracing related to COVID-19.
Turgeon noted that stress and anxiety levels as well as suicidal ideation have become a serious problem in the wake of the pandemic. The Opportunity Alliance aims to offer support that addresses every distress level and the various needs of all individuals. She pointed out that all staff have been trained to offer psychosocial first aid.
The grant funding for StrengthenME is slated to end in July 2021, according to Pollard. However, DHHS is exploring other opportunities to maintain the current resources beyond the grant end date when the behavioral health impacts of the pandemic will most likely extend well past the end of social distancing, mask wearing, and other protective measures, she added.
Mental health providers in Maine who would like to become involved in StrengthenME are advised to consider offering support in their community where they already have networks that can help foster connections.
“Reach out to a local school, community organization or church and offer to host a Zoom stress management group,” Pollard said. “Hold a relaxation technique seminar for your neighborhood. These sorts of solutions allow people who are hesitant to ask for help to find support.”
Maine DHHS also launched OPTIONS (Overdose Prevention Through Intensive Outreach, Naloxone and Safety) in October 2020 as the state witnessed a rise in fatal drug overdoses related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spectrum became involved in OPTIONS through its Community Integrated Health Programs, which prevents hospital admissions through medication management plans. Most of its consumers don’t understand when to take their medications, why they are taking them, keep unexpired medication for later use, reduce dosages to save money or have medication their PCP is unaware of, Carlson noted.
“Our team can work with these consumers to develop a person-centered plan that will help them address the specific issues occurring.”