MAINTAINING CONNECTION AND SUPPORT DURING PHYSICAL DISTANCING MANDATES:

Side by Side's North Bay Response
We are living in uncertain times. For youth who were receiving school-based and office-based counseling, this is a time of heightened anxiety...and they need support more than ever as many of the youth we serve have experienced significant trauma in their lives.

Uncertainty Breeds Additional Anxiety
For youth with past trauma, this state of “not knowing” creates a lack of security, and when they don’t feel secure, they don’t feel safe. “This causes a trauma response in the body, which releases chemicals that bring their bodies back to their past trauma, even if their minds are not there,” explains Denisse Mendoza, North Bay Community Counseling program manager. “In addition to processing all of the scary news from around the world, the community is telling them to stay home in order to stay safe, but their bodies are telling them that they are not safe. So, they are receiving mixed messages, and that is creating a lot of panic.”

At Side by Side, nothing is more important than the safety and security of our youth. Here’s how our North Bay community counseling staff are addressing their needs. (Stay tuned for next week's update on how Side by Side's East Bay staff are working with young people in Alameda County.)

Pivoting to Support Their Needs
“The first thing we did for our school-based clients in Sonoma County was to reassure them that our counseling services are continuing,” said Mendoza. Many of them were in fear that services would be suspended due to school closures, but thankfully, since Side by Side is an independent agency, school closures do not affect our school-based counseling programs. For our office-based clients , our Santa Rosa office remains open, as mental health is considered an essential service defined by the Shelter in Place directive.

Governor Newsom’s announcement about schools possibly not re-opening before summer resulted in a lot of anxiety for already anxious youth. “We weren’t planning on seeing our clients last week because schools were on spring break, but we ended up scheduling many support sessions,” said Mendoza. “We are not doing a lot of regular therapy right now –we’re mostly doing crisis support and de-escalating.”

Next, we quickly pivoted to bring TeleHealth (the process of providing counseling via video conferencing) to our clients. Two of our five North Bay clinicians are currently seeing a few select clients in the Santa Rosa office because TeleHealth is contraindicated for these clients. However, appointments are spaced out to avoid multiple people in the waiting area and the office is cleaned multiple times throughout the day. All other clients are being seen via TeleHealth video sessions. Mendoza said she thought that her office-based clients would want to cancel, but that was not the case. “Everyone wants to keep their sessions,” she said.

Meeting the Challenges
For all youth, we are working to honor regularly scheduled counseling sessions without interruption. Maintaining routines as much as possible helps to reduce anxiety.
While we are working through various obstacles, including youth finding privacy for at-home sessions, the biggest challenge is the fact that while our current TeleHealth platform does not require an account or an app, it does require an email address and Internet access.

Unfortunately, many of our clients do not have reliable Internet at home, or they share a smart phone amongst all family members, making traditional TeleHealth an unrealistic way to serve these youth. Therefore, we are quickly researching and testing new TeleHealth platforms in order to serve as many clients as possible. Fortunately, Medi-Cal has relaxed its reimbursement protocols during this crisis, allowing us to use a variety of platforms (such as Zoom conferencing and traditional telephone calls) that would not normally be allowable.

The Silver Lining
We are always looking for the positive during challenging situations and now is no exception. Because we usually meet our clients at their school or in our office, conducting sessions via TeleHealth provides us with our first glimpse into our clients’ worlds. Clients are showing us their bedrooms, which are often a sacred, special place. Some youth show their clinician an art project or photo they discussed in a previous session.

One youth was talking with Mendoza about a social media video she was regretting posting but was too embarrassed to share the video in question. “But when we were doing our video session, she shared it with me,” Mendoza said with a smile in her voice. “Perhaps it was because she was in her room - her safe space? There’s no way to know for sure, but I suspect that being in her own room allowed her to feel safe enough to be vulnerable with me. It was a special moment."

How You Can Help

Many of our clients come from low-income families who live paycheck to paycheck and are dependent on service sector jobs that have been seriously impacted by the physical distancing policies now in place. It's times like these when standing together is so important and we invite you to donate now to our Client Relief Fund.