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The CARES team is a group of mental health professionals funded by Washtenaw County's voter-approved Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage on May 1, 2019 when services were expanded to all residents, regardless of insurance status or severity of need. The goal of the CARES team is to provide short-term stabilization services to individuals who are unable to access mental health care in the community. Services include individual and group therapy, case management, peer support, medication management, and nursing. This month, we spoke with Shannon Ellis, a social worker who supervises CARES access, to hear more about the program.
Who’s on the CARES team?
We’re a team of mental health professionals, peer support specialists, case managers, nurses, and psychiatrists that works to serve residents across the entire county.
Tell us about your role.
I’m the access supervisor, which means I oversee the day-to-day operations, coordinate with other supervisors to make sure the 24/7 CARES line is constantly staffed, and work to meet our goal of responding to crises in 30 minutes or less. I also guide the adaptation of the program when we need to make changes to better meet community needs.
Who needs these services?
Since the May 1 expansion, the CARES team has provided temporary bridging services to 733 Washtenaw County residents and connected many of these clients to longer term services in the community. We’ve served a lot of uninsured clients--approximately 13 percent of our client base--but we also provide services to people with insurance when the services they need are not covered, or when they can't afford the copay.
Why do insured residents need help from the CARES team?
A lot of our insured clients need case management, peer support, timely access to appointments, medication renewals, or just more intensive services that are not offered through their insurance. We provide those services for insured clients, and we also offer extra care for clients with unique needs, such as people with traumatic brain injuries or people with severe substance use disorders who are not yet ready to stop using substances altogether.
Has anything surprised you since the expansion?
We have served more youth than I expected. Many youth are not able to receive Community Mental Health (CMH) services because they do not have insurance or because they have temporary needs. The CARES team adapted to this need and started partnerships at Whitmore Lake Public Schools and Milan Area Schools. In the future, we plan to expand our role within schools and work with more school districts, including Manchester Public Schools. We are hoping to learn how to best support schools and continue to meet the behavioral health needs of youth.
Have there been unforeseen challenges that have arisen with this expansion?
CARES was originally designed to be a temporary mental health stabilization program. However, sometimes people need longer term care, and without insurance, connecting people to community-based care can be difficult. We have also found ourselves working with clients whose needs—such as monthly injections requiring a doctor's presence—are too great for traditional outpatient facilities. We recognize that some clients need care longer than anticipated to become stabilized and to address needs, and we are proud that we are able to be flexible in order to be most helpful to clients.
How has CARES changed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?
Many Washtenaw County residents have lost their jobs and insurance coverage. Because we offer services to people without insurance, we’ve been able to be particularly helpful to members of the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of clients are also getting eviction notices and we’ve worked to find ways to help them avoid eviction and the disruptions associated with it. We’ve also been able to connect clients with Section 8 Vouchers to long-term housing and occasionally we’ve been able to provide emergency housing for clients in need. While many client concerns are related to the pandemic, a lot of concerns existed before COVID and are not directly related to the pandemic. It's important we continue to address those despite the circumstances.
I am especially proud of my team’s ability to adapt during the pandemic. With care moving to virtual services and to telehealth, connecting clients to mental health providers can be challenging because some clients do not have access to a teledevice. We’ve made our space available so clients can come into the CARES office to use one of our computers to get connected to care. My team at CARES have really been troupers during the pandemic and have been great at finding creative ways to provide care and adapt, all while keeping clients safe.
CARES has partnerships with many local organizations, could you explain how these partnerships were developed and sustained?
Myself and other members of the CARES team work with many community providers including Corner Health Center, Catholic Social Services, Jewish Family Services, and Avalon Housing. I work with Packard Health often, and they are a great community collaborator. These partnerships often work both ways, with CARES making and receiving referrals. My team tries to reduce the burden on clients by contacting these organizations and working with their staff so that we aren’t forcing clients to make calls themselves, which can be hard if clients don’t have access to a phone. I work closely with Melisa Tasker, the program administrator at CARES, to make sure these partnerships and referrals are successful.
Are there any new services you plan to implement in the future? Or any other changes you plan to make?
In addition to expanding our role in local public schools, the CARES team plans to resume facilitating therapy groups that were temporarily discontinued due to COVID-19. The team has worked to move these groups to Zoom and will begin offering them to clients again soon.
What else would you like the general public to know about CARES?
Anybody can call the Washtenaw County Community Mental Health Access/Crisis hotline at 734-544-3050. 24/7 there will be somebody answering the phone to help you whether that be crisis support or a referral to services.