County’s mental-health crisis team offers support in midst of pandemic

The Enterprise — 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,” says Stephen Giordano, Ph.D., the director of Albany County’s Department of Mental Health.

ALBANY COUNTY — As with the pandemic, the suffering may be worldwide for workers in the front lines fighting the coronavirus who now may have to wrestle with mental-health problems.

“There have been some traumatic events in the health-care profession across the world — some notable suicides,” said Stephen Giordano, Ph.D., the director of Albany County’s Department of Mental Health, at Saturday’s county press briefing.

The World Health Organization released a report on Wednesday about the need for action in mental health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report notes that frontline health-care workers and first responders have been exposed to numerous stressors and says that ensuring the mental health of health-care workers is a critical factor in sustaining COVID-19 preparedness, response, and recovery. 

The general public is suffering, too, from the anxiety of being in isolation, the stress of jobs lost and schools closed, and worry about the future.

“Across the nation, mental health has been under-resourced anyway,” said Giordano. “Psychiatric hospitals have been closing in New York State or shrinking for a long time.”

He went on, “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.”

“The mental health and wellbeing of whole societies have been severely impacted by this crisis and are a priority to be addressed urgently. Psychological distress in populations is widespread,” says the United Nations report.

WHO recommends a whole-of-society approach to promote, protect, and care for mental health. It also says that mental health and psychosocial support must be available in any emergency, including the COVID-19 crisis.

Finally, WHO says that all affected communities will need quality mental health services to support society’s recovery from COVID-19

On Sunday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said at his press briefing, “I don’t know that any of us have really explored the depths of the mental-health issues that have been created inadvertently through these 78 days … Don’t underestimate the trauma that this has created for people.

“Out of the blue comes this virus, something we’ve never seen before. You’re living a science fiction movie. It’s been incredibly anxiety producing, traumatic, disturbing, and we’ve felt and seen all along evidence that this is creating a significant mental-health challenge for people.”

Cuomo went on, “The number of Americans who are reporting serious mental distress, up to 38 percent, doesn’t even discriminate by age — 18 to 44. It’s a multiple of what it’s ever been and this something that I think deserves more attention than it has gotten because it’s very real.”

The Mental Health Coalition, he said, is working on a website: How Are You, Really? “They ask people to answer that question and share their feelings and their thoughts,” Cuomo said, something that he said has helped him.

He also noted that the state’s Office of Mental Health has an Emotional Support Helpline — at 1-844-863-9314 — where mental-health professionals volunteer their time to connect by FaceTime or on the telephone.

As of May 18, more than 14,000 New Yorkers had called the helpline since its launch on March 25. The Helpline is accessible to all New Yorkers, including those who don’t speak English or those who are deaf or hard of hearing. It is currently operating from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

“We’ve had a tremendous response; use it,” said Cuomo on Sunday.

Albany County set up its own mental-health hotline at the start of the outbreak, staffed both by volunteers and department staff. So far, it has answered 275 calls, Giordano said on Saturday.

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

“In the near term,” Giordano said, “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.”

He praised the courage of people who work in the mental-health field as well as the courage of people who live with mental illness.

“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.

“We’re also trained in mass casualty events, and this is important because we’ve had more than 60 deaths in this county,” Giordano said of the death toll from COVID-19, which as of Saturday stood at 68.

“God forbid we had a plane crash at the airport and there were 60 or more fatalities. Our mental-health disaster team would be deployed and we’d set up a family support center and we would work with families dealing with loss and grief.”

He went on about the pandemic as it is playing out in the county, “But this is so different. But it is also a mass casualty event and our team is our support line. We’re encouraging families and loved ones who have lost people in this pandemic to make use of our support line and our virtual family support center.”

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 ned in this county.”

More Regional News

  • “We’re all talking about what is the spread of the virus when you increase economic activity,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo at his Sunday press briefing. “Well, how do you know what the spread of the virus is? Testing, testing, testing.”

  • The “Athletes are Children First” grant will allow the Crime Victims Center and the county’s Department for Children, Youth and Families and the Children’s Advocacy Center to offer training to club staff, coaches, and parents on best practices to prevent abuse, as well as providing outreach and support.

  • Albany County Executive Daniel Mccoy says that the large number of nursing homes in the Capital Region are keeping the region from meeting one of the metrics needed to reopen.

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