August 10, 2022
While children and teens remain less susceptible to the long-term physical effects of COVID-19, there’s no doubt that the impact of COVID on children's mental health has been sustained and substantial. From school closures and fewer group activities to missed life events and loss of safety and security, the ongoing pandemic has taken a significant toll on our community’s kids.
Higher demand for mental health services for teens, preteens, and children coupled with limited in-person access is a problem that requires strong focus and innovative spirit to address. And, of course, expanding youth mental health services to meet the increased need also requires funding.
In response to the increasing need for youth mental health services during the pandemic, our longtime community partners at Compass Health launched two new programs via their Child and Family Services, made possible through funding from United Way of Whatcom County. We spoke with our friends at Compass Health about the impact of COVID on children's mental health within our community and how United Way funding has helped Compass meet the challenges we’re facing in Whatcom County. Here’s what they had to say:
Can you speak to behavioral health for teens and how COVID has impacted it?
Preteens, teens, and young adults exist in a time and space where they are developing individual identity, navigating group dynamics, developing lasting friendships, learning to navigate intimate relationships, and finding their place in the world. It's also a time when body, hormone, and brain chemistry changes start to have an impact. Adolescence is a time that leaves an indelible mark on the adults we become. Its also a time when many major mental illnesses can materialize.
Against this potentially volatile backdrop, adolescents tend to rely on the social networks that they inhabit to survive and hopefully thrive. This was challenging enough prior to a global pandemic that disrupted life as we knew it, let alone now once the damage to a lot of these social networks has been done. Isolation, normally a mainstay and defining feature of many people's adolescent experiences, has now been compounded.
Consequently, we see the corresponding rise in behavioral-health-related statistics across the board for adolescent populations—substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts and youth seeking help. Add this to the fact that for many adolescents who may be struggling with abuse or neglect, the only safe place to seek a trusted adult may have been school, and you have a sense of the “shadow pandemic” that we are seeing.
As we emerge into a new mode of being, the goal is to both provide traditional services that we offered before the pandemic in addition to new programming designed to foster a sense of community, normalcy, and safety for our adolescent clients.
How is financial support from United Way of Whatcom County helping Compass Health provide mental health services for teens in our community?
United Way is currently providing funding for two main initiatives that our Child and Family team is working on. The first is a push to invest in telehealth infrastructure to expand the reach of our school-based services and Child and Family clinic-based services into under-resourced portions of the county.
The most recent initiative supports our "flex funding," which is used to assist clients directly, or families of clients with one-off expenses that may pose a barrier to accessing and thriving in care.
Can you describe the first of the two Compass Health initiatives designed to support youth behavioral health?
The telehealth initiative funding has allowed us to vastly expand not only our geographical reach by annihilating traditional space/time barriers, but also by allowing us to serve more clients in total. Our school-based services are now over 70% telehealth in Whatcom County and our clinicians are no longer having to spend hours driving between school sites. We were able to initiate MOUs (memorandums of understanding) with districts throughout the county and provide services in school sites that, for example, may only have one youth who needs service or districts with only a handful of referrals. We currently provide services in all school districts in Whatcom County except Mt. Baker and Lynden, with whom we are in talks to bring online in the fall.
The next phase of expansion with United Way support is underway now. We have expanded school year programming into year-round services, focusing on group counseling and on-demand counseling services that help address clinical needs and rebuild a sense of community for kids impacted by the social disruption of the pandemic.
Using United Way funds, we were able to purchase telehealth portals which we issued to each client who signed up for our groups. We were also able to provide in-the-moment support for children in need at various community locations in partnership with schools and the YMCA.
If you look at the numbers year-over-year, this program expanded roughly 300% since 2020. That aggressive rate of expansion would not have been possible without the pivot to telehealth, funded by United Way.
What is the second initiative, and how will it support youth behavioral health?
On the second initiative, we are providing funds for addressing what we call "barriers to care" or "social determinants of health" (the primary being poverty). The classic example here is the family that wants to bring their child for services at the clinic but is facing barriers that prevent seeking care. They may not have Wi-fi access, so a telehealth tablet isn’t the answer. And they may also have no money to put gas in the car. Or they could have a flat tire with no means to repair it. Or another issue that prevents them from accessing the mental health services they need.
Now that United Way has provided us with some funding for flex funds for use with the Child and Family team, we are excited to be able to attend to more of these social determinants of health that have so dramatically impacted the families that we serve in the north, central and eastern portions of Whatcom County.
Funding provided by United Way has been instrumental to us in advancing these initiatives. Bottom line, without the funding, particularly on the telehealth initiative side, we wouldn’t have been able to get started.