Mental health counseling center in Denver goes virtual, likely forever

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Posted at 12:25 PM, Apr 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-02 14:25:58-04

DENVER — When the coronavirus curve begins its downward trek, there will be many things here in Colorado that will not be returning to the way they were.

When stay-at-home orders were issued here, it meant the state’s largest mental health counseling service had no choice but to turn digital.

So, Mental Health Center of Denver (MHCD) — and its 13,000 clients — went virtual. Face-to-face counseling became a thing of the past, but it’s likely going to stay that way forever.

Griff McClure is a volunteer for the MHCD’s Resource Center near downtown. What used to be a pickup location for clients needing food and toiletries has now turned into a clearinghouse location where those needs are boxed up and delivered to those same clients once a week.

“We have pasta, we have rice, we have cereal. There’s also vegetables here that they can pick up,” says McClure. “This isolation and lack of human contact could make them very symptomatic with what they’re struggling with right now. We want to get that personal touch, reach out to them, show them we care about them. And we’re trying to help them the best we can.”

For an industry that relies on that personal touch to treat those suffering from any number of mental illnesses, a worldwide pandemic only adds to the feelings of helplessness. Add to that the reality that case workers can no longer see them in person, and the crisis hits critical mass very quickly. MHCD is making sure that does not happen here.

“We had a crash course in Microsoft Teams during a Sunday night crisis meeting,” explained MHCD Chief Executive Officer Carl Clark. “And we made the decision that we should switch from seeing people face-to-face to seeing people virtually.”

As Clark said, that crisis meeting took place on a Sunday night. By the next morning, the entire 400 caseworker staff went virtual. And the patient reaction was everything the nonprofit was hoping for.

“Many of them were thankful and frankly, liked it better because they didn’t have to travel to the clinic,” Clark said. “There weren’t transportation issues, and it was more convenient, and they could get their needs met virtually.”

MHCD had talked about virtual counseling for more than a year. A plan to convert was in the works already. But that plan was in its infancy and still at least a year or two away from becoming reality.
Chief Information Officer Wesley Williams helped to make it happen overnight instead. He said he agrees with Clark. The transition was virtually seamless.

“The primary feedback we’ve gotten is that people are really glad they can still see us, and that they can still receive services,” Williams said.

And that means all services, because treatment can also mean pharmaceuticals. That program is fully operational as well, at the MHCD pharmacy. Pharmacists immediately began filling prescriptions. Only now, it would be case workers volunteering to make house-to-house deliveries.

“I think when we come out of this there’s going to be some people who say, ‘This is how I want to keep doing care,’” Williams said. “It’s more convenient for everyone, right?”

The only hoop left to jump through would be getting paid for this new brand of mental health counseling. Private insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid do not cover virtual counseling except in specific circumstances.

“You could only deliver telehealth if the person receiving the services was in a rural location or if they were in a sort of certified facility,” Williams said.

Those requirements changed as fast as COVID-19 spread.

“The payment mechanisms had not really caught up with what we could do technologically,” Clark said. “And right now, because of the epidemic the payers have said we now will remove those restrictions and we will pay for you to provide treatment this way. It will be very difficult to get that horse back in the barn.”

COVID-19 is a pandemic with a permanent impact on a critical need — a virus that just might have brought mental health counseling into the 21st century.

That’s not just applicable here in Denver, but nationwide, those who provide mental health counseling are having to rethink treatment for the majority of their patients. There will, of course, always be those exceptions. Patients that need that face-to-face interaction as part of their actual treatment. But for better than 95% of those needing mental health counseling, they can now get it in the comfort of their own homes.

There is yet another silver lining to this telemedicine turn: Case workers will have more time to treat even more patients.

That means, if our stay-at-home orders have you feeling lonely or depressed, you can check out the resources on MHCD’s website here. There you can schedule with a counselor or choose from dozens of free resources to help you cope with the coronavirus blues.