By Kimberley Higgs
Despite stay-at-home orders restricting movement, an irrepressible force of helpers is on the move all over New Jersey right now. Armed with authorizations from CEOs and Executive Directors confirming their essential status, they are the men and women of New Jersey’s psychiatric rehabilitation and community mental health workforce.
And they are sacrificing time with their own families to heed their special call to serve and support our most vulnerable fellow Jerseyans.
They are on their way to work for a mental health agency where they will counsel a fellow New Jerseyan who is receiving help for a mental health condition, to help them to manage their anxiety, fear and trauma, and to obtain medications critical to maintaining their health. They continue to open the doors of community mental health agencies for those who depend on them for the opioid treatment they require to avoid relapsing into the cycle of addiction. Those served by these workers also may need food for empty pantries at home, or basic medications, but without access to transportation or credit cards there’s no way to access or pay for them. This workforce meets those needs, too.
Some people are able to access their mental health agency via telehealth. Others are not because they live alone and don’t have a landline or cellphone on which to receive those critical support calls. Some are homeless. Enter our outreach workers. With limited access to PPE, and sometimes little more than social distancing to protect themselves, they are on their way to the home of a person with a serious mental illness, or to find someone who needs help “in the streets.” They will deliver essential care “in the field”; inside homes, in doorways, vestibules and the front stoops of the people who depend on them daily. They deliver medications, food, check-in on health needs and facilitate access to needed resources. They reassure fears, offer strategies to manage anxiety and reduce the traumatic impact of being alone. Keeping safe during their working hours continues to be challenging and anxiety-provoking task. They face shortages in PPE akin to other healthcare providers as they attend to their variety of tasks and locations each day.
Similar things are happening in group homes all around New Jersey. Akin to nursing homes, these small, homelike settings are staffed 24-hours a day and many of the persons residing in them have significant medical illnesses that accompany their psychiatric care needs. These residents require hands-on assistance with a variety of daily tasks throughout the day and night, every day and night, without exception and with whatever PPE is on hand that day. Our workforce is always there. And we in the community mental health system are not alone. Essential agencies in New Jersey’s non-profit workforce are out every day to meet the needs of our home-bound seniors, persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, veterans, victims of domestic violence, and at-risk youth.
When you are out on the road to attend to your essential tasks and see a vehicle with an NF or OP license plate, you are following a mental health professional who is dedicated to meeting the needs of the most vulnerable among us.
Please join the New Jersey Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association (NJPRA) and our member agencies, in thanking New Jersey’s community mental health work force and all the other helping professionals from the bottom of our hearts for their heroic service.
Kimberley Higgs, LCSW, is the Executive Director of the NJPRA