While they may have fewer doctors and mental health professionals than they’d like, rural Candler and Emanuel Counties have one thing that other counties don’t – CarePartners of Georgia’s Mobile Access and Engagement Unit. The mobile access unit goes out daily, traveling to five sites on a rotation. CarePartners staff man the operation, with a registered nurse, a certified addiction counselor/community support worker, and three or four licensed mental health professionals.

CarePartners’ Mobile Access and Engagement Unit. Photo courtesy of Kathy Durden, co-founder of CarePartners and COO.

The mobile access unit is a lifeline of sorts, a product of collaboration between community members. The Swainsboro Fire Department donated the bus – and a firefighter drives it. Two local food banks are partnering so that food and sanitary supplies can be delivered to families on the unit’s stops. Both counties’ school staff help with coordination of behavioral health care and food donations. CarePartners posted the unit’s schedule on Facebook (services are first come, first served), and the local newspaper has publicized the announcement.

In just one week, the unit has served more than 110 people, about two-thirds of them children, and delivered 100 boxes of food. Staff wish they could offer coronavirus testing, but don’t have access to tests at present. They are following infection control protocols, wearing gloves and masks and maintaining a distance of six to eight feet from patients in the bus. They provide nursing, behavioral health and substance use counseling, and community support services – as well as telehealth. CarePartners says that the quick response by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities and Department of Community Health with guidelines on telehealth provision was fundamental to the unit’s rapid success.

Sadly, the unit has seen at least two cases each day where a child (and family) needed support diffusing a mental health crisis, including suicidal ideation. The pandemic has dramatically increased stress for families, and some are in highly vulnerable situations. David Crooke, CarePartners CEO, describes a specific fear among mothers who are terrified of contracting COVID-19. “They do not know who will take care of their children, and they are afraid if they die their children will be orphaned,” he said. The fear is intensified among mothers of children with serious emotional disturbances, as mothers are afraid that family members won’t step up to take care of their children if needed. Fortunately, none of the crises seen by mobile unit staff so far have required hospitalization.

David Crooke, CEO of CarePartners of Georgia

There are some upsides, however. CarePartners is an established leader in school-based mental health, but they have seen some benefits to providing care under these circumstances. Parents are now, given the slowdown, able to accompany their children to mental health visits – which was uncommon before. “We have great opportunities to partner with our families in provision of family education, family counseling, and parent skill-building,” Crooke said. Parents are also receiving much-needed medication education while sitting in on medication management sessions with their children.

Perhaps, the most interesting and exciting development is that we have not experienced one hint of stigma in this process. I am not sure if this is [because] these small towns are rolling up their sleeves and rallying around each other in this time of crisis,” Crooke explains. The unit has already been able to reach roughly 10 people who had untreated mental health needs and received services for the first time.

“I think the most rewarding experience has been seeing our community stand together to take care of children and families in this time of crisis,” Crooke says. While it’s certainly daunting for Crooke and his team to consider the impact of the pandemic on the healthcare system – including behavioral health service provision – for now, they are relying on diligent precautions, faith, and the deep satisfaction of serving their community.

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