County helpline staff: ‘They’re there to help you’

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

“I think folks are getting hit in ways that we never could have predicted but they’re also resilient in ways we never could have imagined,” Stephen Giordano, Ph.D., the director of Albany County’s Department of Mental Health, said this spring. His department runs a free helpline.

ALBANY COUNTY — Recently, the county staff taking calls from people stressed by the pandemic have been enduring hostility.

“We’ve been getting complaints people are being hostile with them — screaming at them,” said Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy at his New Year’s Day press conference. 

“They’re not there for that,” he said. “They’re there to help you.”

The complaints have surfaced in the last two weeks, McCoy said. “It’s been alarming.”

McCoy had said earlier it was his military experience — he’s a member of the National Guard —that led him to set up the county helpline in March just a day after he reported the county’s first two cases of COVID-19.

He became personal on New Year’s Day, again drawing on his military experience, as he urged residents to do the right thing as “we’re fighting with COVID-19.”

If protocols are ignored, McCoy said, “You’re going to reflect back on your actions and, trust me, it’s going to eat you alive. How do I know that? Being mobilized ... in Iraq, fighting in the war. Your actions that you did … punish you years later. Trust me. What you do today will bother you.”

He said of the role of the helpline staff, “They’re there to listen.”

McCoy said that he, himself, has felt the stress of the last 43 weeks, dealing with the coronavirus.

“There are times I wanted to cry. There are times I wanted to scream. There are times I wanted to jump out of my skin,” he said.

He commended the helpline staff for its work, noting the workers at the free service answer calls every day including Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

In April, Stephen Giordano, Ph.D., the director of Albany County’s Department of Mental Health, spoke about the work being done by the helpline staff a month after the pandemic hit Albany County.

“We’ve received a couple hundred calls … They run the gamut,” he said, and include questions about managing with children at home.

“But mostly it’s about how do we stay focused in this time of uncertainty … It’s not a sign of mental illness to be afraid, worried, and stressed” at a time like this, he said.

“There’s a lot of concern about our loved ones and about our world as we know it … The trick is to take this opportunity to learn how to take care of your mental health,” said Giordano.

The coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions imposed to prevent its spread are “challenging the folks who are living and struggling with substance abuse and addiction,” Giordano said then.

“The concerns that lead to using more drugs and alcohol or potentially relapsing if you’re in recovery or even overdosing are present all together right now and posing enormous challenges to folks that are struggling with addiction,” he said.

Giordano named some of those pressures: “The anxiety, the stress, the worry, the loneliness that might come from social isolation … losing jobs, losing purpose, and now losing the lives of friends and loved ones.”

In Albany County, Giordano said, 2,500 people are receiving drug and alcohol treatment. He called the county “rich in support” for both mental illness and addiction.

“Every level of care for addiction is present in Albany County,” Giordano said, and, despite the pandemic, he said, “All of those services are open and operational.”

A month later, in May, Giordano provided another update. At that time, the county had suffered about 60 deaths from COVID-19. Now, the death toll stands at 226.

“In the near term,” Giordano said in May, “we’re seeing anxiety and depression and those kinds of reactive disorders. Down the road, we’re going to start to see things like post-traumatic stress disorder and I’m concerned most about the health-care community, the folks … on the front lines in the health world, the mental-health world who have been just selflessly throwing themselves at this.”

“One out of five people in this country over the course of their lifetime will experience what is considered a diagnosable mental-health problem,” said Giordano.

The current sustained crisis, he said, is exacerbating illness in people who were already suffering “but it’s also affecting those folks who don’t have mental illness, who are just struggling to deal with this sustained isolation, sustained uncertainty, and stress and worry and fear,” said Giordano.

Albany County’s Emergency/Disaster Mental Health Response Team has trained alongside the Red Cross, Giordano said, and Albany County is one of few counties in the nation that has developed its own mental-health emergency response team.

“The team was assigned to man the support line right off the bat,” he said.

The team members are trained in grief counseling, he said, and can connect residents with community resources as needed.

Giordano concluded, “I guess the bottom line is this: It’s a good time to take pause and acknowledge the importance of our own self care and emotional health, recognize the challenges that our loved ones and our neighbors have in this regard, and know that our services are open and available and that we are increasing those services to respond to the need in this county.”

The county’s helpline — 518-269-6634 — is open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Anyone experiencing a psychiatric emergency should still call the Albany County Mobile Crisis Team at 518-549–6500.

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