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Increased Anxiety And TeleHealth: Changes To WNC Mental Health Services Amid COVID-19

Lilly Knoepp
Sylva's Director of Meridian Behavioral Health Services says the organization was able to provide online Zoom community classes in just two weeks.

  Mental healthcare providers say that increased anxiety and a shorter fuse are normal during COVID-19 stress.  BPR talked with one provider for rural Western North Carolina about what it’s like to deal with a pandemic – and help others through it: 


Meridian Behavioral Health Services serves the seven westernmost counties of North Carolina. Like anywhere else, life looks very different now for the organization’s health care providers:


“Pretty much everything has changed since COVID-19.”


That’s Meridian’s Jackson County Director Becca Swanger. She explains that the organization provides behavioral health services such as community classes on recovery and anxiety - which are now all availablevia Zoom. Much of Meridian’s care has switched over to telehealth: 


“We have a tele room set up in every office. So we're running a skeleton crew at each site where an engagement specialist and a clinical support is onsite everyday. Like today is Wednesday, that's my clinical day. So I am here at the Sylva office,” explains Swanger, when BPR spoke with her last week. 


However, Swanger says the lack of access to internet - or even cell phone service - has been a challenge. 


“That's a problem that we see here in Jackson County a lot - people are really living on the top of the mountain in the middle of nowhere,” says Swanger. “There aren’t even the capabilities to have phone service or internet.”


Swanger explains that helping people access all types of care is a balancing act right now: 

“We're looking at it from a 'Maslow Hierarchy of Needs,' kind of lens. So if the need is about being able to get a medication or being able to get food, we feel that the risk of not having those needs met is greater than the risk of being exposed to Coronavirus,” says Swanger, explaining that sometimes healthcare workers still feel it’s necessary to go to the homes of patients in need.


Meridian CEO Dr. Don Buckner echoes this statement.  


“We haven't eliminated face-to-face completely. I would say probably, at least 75 percent of the services we're doing are a remote at this point,” says Buckner.

Unlike many other healthcare providers Buckner says Meridian hasn’t had to furlough any workers.

Meridian is a nonprofit but much of its funding comes from the state and is managed by Vaya Health. At the end of 2019, the North Carolina General Assembly cut Vaya’s budget by about $9 million dollars - this meant less funding for Meridian’s programs as well - but because of COVID-19 Vaya has increased Meridian’s funding to keep employees working. 

“The expectation is that we're going to use those monies to continue providing services, continue keeping services available, especially crisis services that are so important for our community. So we can hopefully keep people stable in their homes and the community rather than needing to go to the hospital,” says Buckner. 

Keeping people cared for at home could be critical if hospital beds are needed for COVID-19 patients in the region. 

Vaya Health also gave out 500 smartphones across the 22 Western North Carolina counties in its coverage area to help patients who previously couldn’t access telehealth - about 40 smart phones made it to the westernmost counties, says Buckner. 

 Buckner and Swanger agree that they have seen an increase in anxiety in patients. Beyond isolation, job loss and money concerns brought on by COVID-19 add stress to people who might already be dealing with other health or legal issues. Buckner advises to take care of your body and focus on getting exercise and rest: 

“We also need to be careful that we're not overwhelming ourselves emotionally with all the fear and all the information that's out there,” says Buckner. 

Swanger says it might be easier for people to start working on their mental health right now because appointments will all be over the phone - this means no need to take time off work. Here’s what Swanger adds to anyone who is feeling overwhelmed right now: 


“That it's completely normal. That we are all feeling overwhelmed and that they're not alone.”  

Meridian has about 9,000 active patients in the region. Buckner says in the past few weeks the organization is back to seeing patients at a pre-COVID rate. 

Meridian has a hotline to find out more about its services called the WARM line. The number is: 828-339-1552. It’s offered Monday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.


Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.