Tulare County’s mental health services adapt to COVID-19

With Covid-19 cases now nearing 400 across Tulare County, mental health services have been forced to adapt and make policy changes for the safety of their staff and clients.

Tulare County Mental Health barred public access to its wellness center and all clinics/facilities. County Group Therapy has also been cancelled. However, patients can pick up medication on a by-appointment basis. And the crisis team remains operational 24-hours a day, although it expects a heavier call volume than usual.

Despite most facilities physically shutting down, all therapists are still able to hold sessions over the phone. This is a novel addition to the mental health field because previously therapists required additional training and licensing to hold over-the-phone sessions.

The Board of Behavioral Sciences (which licenses all therapists) has approved the practice and most insurance companies have allowed the “telehealth” sessions to now be covered under their policies.

“Which is really great,” Darcy Massey, a Family Advocate for Tulare County Mental Health, explained. “Because most of us who do private practice want to make sure we are safe, too. But we also don’t want to leave our clients hanging.”

Alexandra Famisaran, a resident of Woodlake, has found the new system useful considering she’s been given extensive hours as an essential worker for Winco, a business that has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

“During the 10- and 12-hour shifts when this first went down I was really mentally exhausted, as well as physically…I had a psychiatrist appointment during all this. Instead of our usual face-to-face talk we talked on the phone. It was nice since that way I didn’t have to drive.”

Dr. Mandeep Bagga, a psychiatrist with Kaweah Delta, has been particularly pleased with the new adaptation.

“You can now Facetime your doctor,” he explained. “ And it’s covered by all the insurance companies and everything.”

According to Bagga, the move to telehealth and insurance policy coverage is a response the extremely essential nature of mental health services, especially during a global pandemic.

“You can’t just abandon patients. They need refills. They need medications. They need services. That provider-patient relationship doesn’t just end. You have to find a way to continue to provide those services if you can. That’s why the government has relaxed all of those rules so we can try to connect with patients however we can.”

He also mentioned that things are changing all the time, “multiple times a day”. So more adjustments to the new systems may occur frequently.

This change in format applies to most, if not all, mental health services in the county. Family Services has moved to telehealth so that its therapists can still provide services to patients. However, this will likely only apply to the licensed therapists. It is yet to be determined if student-therapists who helped meet patient demand will be returning to providing supplemental support.

College of the Sequoias has made the move to alternative formats as well by providing a variety of services by phone and online. On April 13, the COS Health Center Nurses started what’s called a Virtual Unplugged Café which runs Monday-Thursday 11am-1pm to provide general health and wellness information and to answer any questions.

Students can access the virtual session by visiting the COS website and checking the Health Center Page. There’s a link under the “Mental Health” section that will open up a Zoom meeting where staff can offer services.

Even the Visalia Wellness Center, a peer-to-peer mental health facility, has altered its formats to continue providing support to their members.

“We’re completely here,” Sarah Landers, Administration Specialist, said. “Making phone calls every day. We have over 300 members so we’re making sure that we’re reaching out to them every day making sure they’re okay. Just being a voice over the phone if they need us.”

The wellness center has created some activities and wellness that can be accessed on its website or Facebook page.

People seeking support and those interested in joining the wellness center can still stop by the facility and pick up an application at 1223 S. Lovers Lane. Applicants are encouraged to call ahead of time so that staff can prepare for their arrival. Staff can be reached at (559) 931-1001.

The Visalia Clubhouse, another peer-to-peer mental health facility, has unfortunately shut down until the shelter-in-place order has been lifted. But founder, Gwen Schrank, and other members of the clubhouse are working on creating online services such as peer support groups and meditation sessions.

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