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Free Counseling Services During Pandemic Help With Access To Care In Upper Valley

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The pandemic has taken a toll on people's mental health, and for many who live in New Hampshire, access to care can be diffiult to find.

Lisa Gardner is a licensed therapist in the Upper Valley, and she helped coordinate free virtual counseling services this past year for people who were struggling. NHPR's Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with Gardner about how the program worked and what she learned from it.

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Rick Ganley: So, Lisa, you're a therapist in the Upper Valley. What does access to mental health care typically look like in your area?

Lisa Gardner: In our area, it seems like the need for mental health far outweighs the mental health care providers that we have. I mean, I hear stories often of someone in need. You know, "I've called 15 therapists. You're the first one that's called me back." And then I have to put them on a wait list and it could be three to six months before they get in. So it's a real issue for people to get care quickly. And when you're in a crisis like it's hard to be put off for three to six months.

Rick Ganley: Sure, three to six months just sounds like an eternity. What are some of the barriers to accessing that care?

Lisa Gardner: Yeah, if you're trying to get an appointment at the hospital, it's centralized. And so, you know, you may not be able to get in with Mary Smith, but you can get in with, you know, John Peters. But in mental health, you have to go online. You have to find someone who takes your insurance, and then you have to call each individual therapist in order to leave a message and get through. And then you wait. So, you know, part of it is there's no centralized access unless you go to a place like West Central Behavioral Health. And those are great services that are offered and often they are overwhelmed as well.

Rick Ganley: How did you decide to offer this free counseling?

Lisa Gardner: I had a client who ended up sewing like 500 masks for one of our local hospitals. And I was just so overwhelmed with her spirit of giving. And I thought, oh my gosh, what could I do? I don't have anything to offer. I can't sew. And then I thought, oh, my gosh, I'm a therapist. And like, this is a time when people are really going to need mental health support. You know, we were starting to hear about some of the stories that were coming in from New York City, the emergency rooms, the overwhelm of the health care workers there. And my whole point in this was that it's hard enough to find a therapist when there's no pandemic going on. But when there's a pandemic going on and you're sitting there breaking down because you couldn't go be with your loved one in the hospital, when you're sick, when you're scared, when you're isolated, you haven't been able to see anyone for a few months. I wanted people to be able to get help within 24 hours.

Rick Ganley: What do you feel like you learned through the process? I'm thinking about accessibility. I'm thinking about the types of services that you can offer virtually. What do you think you learned about mental health services and about your profession in general?

Lisa Gardner: I mean, in one way, I learned how wonderful our community is. You know, there were some online services that were national and we chose to stay focused locally, because I wanted local people to feel the support of their community and also to connect them with caregivers that they might be able to contact after the pandemic. What was really wonderful is that out of that 115, we probably contacted 30 to 40 of those people with long-term therapists. And because of our network, we were able to do that really quickly.

Rick Ganley: Now that you made stronger connections with other therapists and mental health care providers in the Upper Valley, do you have future plans to try and expand access for people living in that part of the state?

Lisa Gardner: Well, it's it's something that I keep talking about with my husband and a couple of my colleagues of` what that could be. We do have a centralized mental health care agencies, but I don't think they serve a good portion, People more with real crises, addiction problems, people in need of a psychiatrist will go to the agencies. But people with simple anxiety problems, grief problems can't. And so we're certainly inspired. But I think it would also take some real change at the state level for us to get some support with that.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR. She manages the station's news magazines, Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can email her at mmcintyre@nhpr.org.

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