Despite the anxieties that came with the novel coronavirus pandemic, admissions to the region’s largest mental health inpatient hospital have slowed this month.
The Erie County Medical Center Regional Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health – like other mental health providers across Western New York – also is handling most of its outpatient and counseling services by phone or online.
“The take-home message is whether it is for regular care or new onset need of care, we’re open and outpatient systems are up and running, but we’ve made changes to reduce the exposure to Covid-19 and protect both our patients and our staff,” said Dr. Michael Cummings, ECMC associate medical director, who oversees the trauma hospital’s behavioral health services.
Patients and staff who arrive at the behavioral health center are screened for symptoms of respiratory illness, as is the case across the campus. Staff who have them are prevented from working. Patients who need to be admitted and have suspected cases of coronavirus are steered to units in the main hospital with similar treatment needs.
“We have not been in the situation where you have someone behaviorally out of control,” Cummings said, but ECMC has protocols in place if that happens.
Meanwhile, he said, the hospital stands ready to serve those with mental health needs who need extra support during the current crisis.
Mental health emergencies happen. Depression is the most common illness in the world. One in five Americans has symptoms of a major anxiety disorder at some point in life.
A global pandemic can endanger mental health for anyone, Cummings said, but creates a greater risk that it will trigger a crisis for those with a history of traumatic stress in their lives, who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, or have struggled with alcohol and other drug use.
The ECMC behavioral health center provides inpatient care for up to 136 people at a time. It serves about 225 patients during a typical March and is tracking lower by about 20 patients this month, Cummings said.
Three other main services also are provided.
The second-floor emergency department – the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program (CPEP) – is the central point where those in mental health crisis are first examined and treated. Contractors finished renovations this week to streamline treatment and create more distance between patients. The unit has served 890 patients so far this month, compared to 812 last March, but its census has been lower than typical during the last week, Cummings said.
The Help Center, on the first floor, acts as the first point of contact for those who feel a mental health crisis looming and seek to prevent it. Staff also provides injectable, time-release medications for patients, including those who can’t receive them in a doctor’s office or some outpatient settings now doing almost all of their work out of the office. The center is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends and holidays.
Outpatient services serve thousands of patients in the region.
ECMC also runs a growing mobile mental health treatment program for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “That program is doing almost everything by telesite and going out to group homes as little as possible right now,” Cummings said, “because all group homes are essentially on lock-down.”
Inpatient behavioral health staffing has held firm so far – though there are worries about workers age 60 and older – and coronavirus spread has been held in check, supported in part by the state rolling back regulations that require regular daily patient group counseling sessions.
“Obviously, we're really working on hand hygiene and social distancing as much as possible,” Cummings said.
Inpatient units have been quieter, but hardly tranquil.
“There is that kind of heightened concern,” he said, “but now is the time to take care of people.”
That mission goes beyond ECMC patients.
The hospital has encouraged all of its 4,000 workers to use the Help Center for support if needed. Cummings on Monday also will lead three online classes for staff with questions about how they can better tend to their mental health during such a trying time.
“They're coming in every day, but they're concerned about childcare,” Cummings said. “It's frightening when you're working with individuals who are infected and going home to elderly relatives or young children, or really any family member.”
Those in need of inpatient services can visit ecmc.edu or call 898-1676. The Erie County Mental Health Association (mhawny.org) provides information for those who can use a lift, as well as their families. Staff is available weekdays by phone at 886-1242. If someone appears a danger to themselves or others, it’s time to reach out any time to Crisis Services at 834-3131, or call 911.
The good news for those with needs is that providers across the region continue to offer inpatient and outpatient services to all who reach out for them.
Providers include counselors like Brian Costello, with Core Mental Health Counseling. He now works with almost all of his clients by phone or online.
“People are struggling,” Costello said, “and if you need therapy, it’s a really good time to start.”
Spectrum Health also has an urgent care mental health clinic opened from 8:30 to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. People are welcome to drop in or call 539-6743 for more information.