Dr. Connie Petersen and the staff at Behavior Health Specialists recently introduced a broader use of telehealth at the Norfolk clinic.
The move is an effort to help clients continue to receive help for mental health issues despite restrictions now in place to combat the spread of COVID-19.
“This is a scary time for folks, both who are depressed and stay kind of isolated and for folks who are struggling with recovery,” said Petersen, clinical director of Behavioral Health Specialists. “Idle time is not a friend for them.”
Using the GoToMeeting app, providers at Behavioral Health Specialists have established a secure platform that is compliant with HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and complements the in-office options also available at the clinic, Petersen said.
Aside from the telepsychiatry services previously offered through Boys Town and Richard Young at Behavioral Health Specialists, this is the clinic’s first foray into telehealth. In the past two weeks, Petersen and staff members have signed up more than 100 clients to receive services through the platform, including those who are involved in group therapy.
“We’re doing all of our groups on telehealth,” Petersen said. “I know sometimes that can be very difficult, but we don’t want our higher-risk clients that are needing group activity not to have that social aspect of what a group can bring to their therapy process.”
The clinic has three outpatient groups with a focus on substance abuse. Its intensive outpatient group entails nine hours of group therapy per week, which means members of the group spend three hours a night for three days a week utilizing telehealth, Petersen said.
“That takes a huge commitment to do that through your phone or computer three nights a week, but it’s so important to be able to see people face to face,” she said.
Petersen said a lot of the recovery community has moved to online meetings because of the COVID-19 restrictions, as well, which allows members to continue to take part in the benefits offered by being part of such a group.
“I’m so proud of the recovery community for developing online meetings so folks can still attend 12-step meetings and have a safe way of doing that,” she said.
Petersen said she also is interested in starting an outpatient mental health group for members of the community who would like additional support from others suffering from mental health issues.
Behavioral Health Specialists still is physically open and continues to accept new clients, but initial referral and intake paperwork may be done over the phone. It also is continuing its drug, alcohol and mental health intake evaluations, Petersen said.
The clinic also offers an alcohol and drug education workshop every other month, and Petersen is considering doing that through telehealth, as well.
Petersen said the staff experienced a minimal learning curve making the shift toward more telehealth appointments, but one of the challenges has been making sure clients are in a confidential space for their appointment.
“That’s something that we can have a bit of control over in the office,” she said. “We want to make sure they can self-regulate that in their home to make sure they really do have a safe space to talk about what’s going on.”
Looking beyond the COVID-19 restrictions, Petersen said she sees a lot of potential in what the greater use of telehealth can offer, especially for clients who live outside of the immediate area, for clients who experience challenges when it comes to finding transportation to appointments and for clients whose current health situation might prevent them from venturing outside of their home.
“I think it’s going to be a new normal, but it’s going to be great,” Petersen said of what the mental health landscape will look like after the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. “We’re going to have different ways of how we socialize with people that are going to help us be connected in a better way. That’s my hope for all of this.”