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The stresses associated with COVID-19 are having a negative impact on people’s mental health.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services recently launched a new, free statewide crisis counseling resource to support North Carolinians — even those uninsured — during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Hope4NC Helpline (855-587-3463) connects North Carolinians with a licensed mental health clinician in their area who can offer emotional support and coping strategies and connect them with local resources.

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“These are challenging and uncertain times for everyone,” Kody Kinsley, DHHS deputy secretary for behavioral health and intellectual and developmental disabilities, said in a statement.

“We want to connect people to the mental health and resilience supports that they may need during this crisis to alleviate some of the anxiety and stressors that they are feeling,”

From a regional crisis to a statewide one

The 24-hour helpline was created as part of a recent hurricane recovery effort that served over 4,400 people most impacted by the disaster and now has been expanded and made available to everyone in North Carolina’s 100 counties during the pandemic.

The initiative was developed in partnership with REAL Crisis Intervention Inc. of Greenville and all seven of the state’s Local Management Entity-Managed Care Organizations, called LME/MCOs, local government agencies that focus on mental and behavioral health needs.

LME/MCO staff members have participated in special training through the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to help people cope during disasters, including COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Although currently funded through DHHS, Hope4NC is working toward receiving funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

According to Rhonda Cox, chief population health officer with Vaya Health, the LME/MCO servicing the state’s 22 westernmost counties, the program is operating in good faith, regardless of whether the funding comes through.

“We have the privilege of working with an array of local partners, and this is a unique opportunity to be able to reach a broader demographic and be part of a solution,” Cox said. “It’s extra work, and FEMA may not come through with funding, but we’re happy to be a support for the community.”

More than a lifeline

Vaya Health reports a decrease in its normal call volume due to a reduction in health crisis calls while people are sheltering at home and which Cox expects will increase once more people are aware of the new helpline. However, the acuity of the calls has shifted in the midst of the pandemic.

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“Callers are describing high levels of anxiety and depression, increased alcohol and drug use, increased incidents of relapse, all of which are exacerbated by social isolation,” said Cox. “Individuals are also struggling to cope with anxiety and stress related to job loss, food insecurity and child care.”

Her organization and others participating in the program are providing emotional support and coping strategies.

“People feel helpless and out of control right now,” Cox said. The tools the agencies provide help people regain some of that autonomy through practical, concrete steps.

According to Cox, the counseling is tailored to each individual and doesn’t just end with the phone call.

Participating organizations like Vaya operate on an infrastructure built on established relationships with providers, health departments, hospitals, law enforcement, first responders and other local stakeholders. This is how they are able to connect people with other local resources, including a mobile crisis team that can provide on-site support if needed.

Ashley Conger, chief communications officer with Cardinal Innovations Healthcare, also participating in Hope4NC and servicing 20 counties in and around Charlotte, reports receiving calls from people looking for social resources such as food, transportation and housing. The agency is also providing counseling and resources beyond its normal services.

In addition, Cardinal Innovations, an LME/MCO based in Charlotte, launched an added crisis resource, **ASK. It’s the mental health equivalent to the convenience of dialing 911 for urgent physical needs and was created with a goal of helping decrease the volume of crowded hospital emergency departments during the pandemic and beyond.

According to Cox, “Hope4NC allows us to broaden our reach in our communities, align with other regional and local COVID response initiatives and help carry the message of hope and resiliency.”

More resources

Hope4Healers Helpline (855-587-3463), a partnership between DHHS and the N.C. Psychological Foundation, provides 24/7 emotional support for health care and emergency medical professionals, first responders and their families who are experiencing stress from being on the front lines during the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers an online resource for stress and coping, along with a list of additional helplines.

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Melissa Reardon is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in Buncombe County. Email to contact the Carolina Public Press news team.

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