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Lessons in Mental Health, Service Delivery, and Social Justice

The hurdles brought on by a worldwide pandemic, coupled with months of social unrest, have become unexpected learning opportunities for Mental Health America of Los Angeles.

“For nearly 100 years, MHALA has worked at the intersection of health and social justice,” explains Dr. Christina Miller, MHALA President and CEO. “Now, more than ever, our mission is fueled by the needs of our community and our strong belief that every individual experiencing trauma or mental health needs should have the resources to achieve their best life.”

Over the past several months, MHALA’s resourceful, quick-thinking teams have found new and safe ways to serve our thousands of members while adapting to emerging needs.

REINVENTING SERVICE DELIVERY

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit LA County, MHALA’s services continued uninterrupted thanks to our use of social distancing guidelines, technology, and protective equipment. The agency transitioned to telehealth and safe distancing to continue offering mental health, employment, housing, medical and other needed services to our participants — those we call members. Despite the pandemic, MHALA members have continued to obtain housing, education, and jobs.

New efforts have grown out of new needs. MHALA’s Transition-Age Youth program, which serves individuals ages 18-25, is offering workouts and cooking lessons virtually. Due to members’ food insecurity during this time, MHALA partnered with local organizations and businesses to open food pantries and provide members with hygiene kits and masks while sharing information on COVID-19 prevention with vulnerable populations.

“We’ve learned a lot during this period about ways to better reach people,” explains Dr. Miller. “Some of our members, for example, respond better to more frequent phone calls than to less frequent in-person meetings. We are incorporating what we’ve learned into new ways of working going forward. We believe we will be able to serve more people using technology more effectively.”

SALLY

As the COVID-19 pandemic neared a crescendo in L.A. County, Sally* had to shelter in place and was unable to visit her family. Sally suffers from severe delusions and hears voices that tell her that her daughters and grandchildren are dead. MHALA was able to provide her with a pre-paid phone so she could maintain regular contact with her nurse-practitioner, case manager, and family members. 

“Being able to talk to her family and realize that the voices are not real helps her maintain her core,” explains Marjorie Solorzano, Director of Housing Services for MHALA’s Long Beach service area. “She has improved tremendously.” 

NEW STREET MEDICINE PROGRAM

In the early days of the pandemic, MHALA’s outreach teams reinvented their day-to-day work practices and protocols seemingly overnight to protect themselves and those they serve: people living on the streets. These teams have evolved into a separate Street Medicine Program to address new and previously unmet needs.

In partnership with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services and Harbor Community Health Clinic, the Street Medicine team — which includes doctors, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, and licensed vocational nurses — screens, triages, and tests for COVID-19 and other health conditions; educates individuals about various conditions and ways to stay healthy; provides wellness checks, complex wound care, and medication support; and offers health navigation-linkages to insurance, health homes, treatment options, and other resources.

“This was a huge change for us,” says Laurie Ramey, MHALA’s Senior Director of Outreach. “It’s a scary time for people living on the streets but we do whatever we need to do to engage them. We ask them, ‘What do you need to feel safe and comfortable?’ Our goal is to make people feel cared for.”

Since the onset of the pandemic in LA, Ramey’s team has assisted nearly 5,500 individuals living on the street.

Woman working on desktop

PAULA

Despite having a good work history, strong skills, and solid work ethic, Paula had been unemployed for nearly three years. She was looking for work in accounting. Working with MHALA’s Employment team, Paula found the accounting job she wanted. 

When the pandemic hit, Paula worried about losing her job – but her employer had no intention of letting her go. They installed WiFi in her home and moved her entire workspace to her house so she could safely continue her work. These accommodations allowed Paula to not just work from home but also skip taking three buses to work and risk being exposed to the virus.