When Teena Lovern, a behavioral health specialist at Evolent, spoke to her patient, "Susan," she was disheartened to hear the challenges she had encountered in trying to get the resources she needed to shelter at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Susan, who had recently become permanently disabled, was unable to work, overwhelmed by student debt and waiting for her bonus money to come in. Susan was also reluctant to apply for nutrition assistance benefits because she had been rejected in the past.
Helping individuals meet their immediate needs might not sound like the typical role of a behavioral health program, but Teena says a whole-person approach is vital. "It's hard to work on anything if you're hungry or if you can't pay for your utilities," Teena explained.
She and her colleagues quickly started reaching out to local resources. They connected Susan with resources to help with her utility payments and mobile food pantries, and they encouraged her to apply for student loan forgiveness. A few days later, Susan called Teena with some good news. After initially receiving less than $20 in nutrition assistance, the patient was thrilled to share that she ended up getting the full benefit of several hundred dollars. Thanks to Teena and her colleagues, Susan would be able to purchase her own food for the next two months, alleviating significant financial insecurity.
While the COVID-19 crisis has undoubtedly been difficult to navigate for all practitioners, it presents a unique challenge to behavioral health specialists. Providers may foster and maintain a relationship with their patients through telemedicine rather than through face-to-face sessions. In addition, anxiety is high, making it a difficult time for patients and staff alike. Patients who struggle with food insecurity, suicidality or substance use disorder are especially high-risk at this time, so Teena has taken extra care to reach out to them often and try and address their immediate needs.
"A lot of times that's the 'in' for behavioral health," Teena said. "The ability to meet those needs gives you the ability to do a lot of work down the road."
As people are isolated in their homes, one of the greatest challenges for behavioral health specialists is addressing loneliness.
"I think we were in a loneliness pandemic long before COVID-19 came along," Teena stated. "However, now you can see groups that are forming. We have support groups dedicated to the elderly, disabled and immunocompromised."
These support groups, while virtual, have gone a long way to connect at-risk members with their communities, whether providing emotional support or leaving groceries and toilet paper on their doorstep.
Overall, Teena believes that holistic care coordination was important in meeting behavioral health needs well before COVID-19 began, and it will continue to be important after the pandemic ends. Through helping patients address challenges such as food insecurity, financial anxiety and loneliness, Teena has fostered a stronger relationship with her patients.
"Building that rapport, building that trust, and knowing that someone believes in you and cares about you is the first step to wellness."