This article appeared in NCFL on March 27, 2020. See the original article here.

As the coronavirus heightens levels of stress, anxiety and concern for public safety through social distancing, Starting Point Behavioral Healthcare has launched a telehealth program to provide mental health and substance abuse recovery services by smartphone, tablet or computer.

The agency has also put into service a pair of crisis hotlines that will be answered by a licensed counselor around the clock, including one for adults and another for teens and children.

The adult crisis number for people over 18 years is (904) 206-1756

The teen and children crisis number is (904) 580-0529 

Director Laureen Pagel said the hotlines are free of charge to everyone who calls.

“People are very anxious, worried and fearful about the coronavirus,” she said by phone Friday. “They’ve lost jobs, they don’t know how to pay their bills and put food on the table. If you’re overwhelmed or suicidal, call us.”

According to Dr. Pagel, the agency has always provided 24-hour service, but phone lines had been answered by a service and transferred to a licensed professional, as needed.

“What we have done is eliminate the middleman,” she said. “We recognize that people are going to need immediate assistance and our goal is to be here for the community.”

Dr. Pagel said the agency for Healthcare Administrators and the Department of Children and Families loosened restrictions on telehealth operations due to the pandemic and that allowed Starting Point to establish telehealth services quickly.

“We’re 100 percent telehealth now,” she said. “This was always part of our strategic plan and the crisis got us there sooner.”

The program is run through the Zoom video conferencing service, she said, with clients accessing a one-on-one session with a counselor by video screen via an email link. Clients meet for an hour for therapy and 20 minutes for a medication follow-up, she said.

“COVID-19 has forced people to stay in their homes, so this is a great way to deliver services uninterrupted,” she said.

“We’ve had many positive comments about telehealth,” Dr. Pagel said. “Some people said they like it better than meeting in person.”

But some don’t, she acknowledged.

“We have an older population here that isn’t comfortable with technology,” she said. “Some people don’t have smartphones, wi-fi at home or even email addresses. And some that have wi-fi have limited accounts and can’t use their minutes for an hour at one time.”

So what happens to them?

Dr. Pagel said Starting Point has arranged three conference rooms with computers for individual sessions during the day. The isolated rooms are also available to walk-in clients who arrive during the week from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. All people seeking walk-in services are screened for the coronavirus through guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and denied access to the building if they are symptomatic. Dr. Pagel said they are referred to seek medical attention. No one has tested positive at Starting Point, she said.

“Everything is wiped down and thoroughly clean between sessions,” she said. “Please let everyone know we’re here for them.”

Starting Point Behavioral Healthcare provides services for approximately 4,000 people annually and the annual budget is $5.2 million. Funding comes from taxpayers through the Nassau County Board, the City of Fernandina Beach, the state Department of Children and Families/Lutheran Services Florida, as well as donations from companies and individuals.

The crisis team includes three fulltime counselors, six licensed therapists and six masters level therapists who are on-call. Services are provided to schools, community, the courts and detention center. While schools are closed during the pandemic and the detention center has stopped services during the health crisis, mental health and drug court services are provided though Zoom, as directed by the Fourth Judicial Circuit.