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AR Connect: Helping Arkansans With Unseen COVID-19 Costs

When COVID-19 hit, it dramatically changed Christie Kelly’s job.

“I was a school-based mental health provider then – BOOM – the schools were closed,” Christie said.

Christie was furloughed for two months with a reduction in time and a cut in pay. She did, however, maintain her caseload of counseling with approximately 30 students a week by meeting with them virtually via Zoom.

“They were so grateful we were still there for them,” Christie said. “They were impacted by deaths in the family, by kids staying home from school, by parents becoming teachers – and I walked through the transition with them as they learned to do life from home.”

But, Christie was still struggling to navigate a work world turned upside down.

COVID dramatically changed “Jim’s” job, too. He lost it. A 50-something husband and father who worked a blue-collar job, Jim suddenly found himself at home, largely responsible for his elementary-school-aged son’s education and with a lot of time on his hands. He was trying to do life from home, too.

But he didn’t have anyone to talk to or help him identify the healthcare need he had lived with for years.

The COVID pandemic – apart from the virus itself – created a secondary healthcare crisis that many may not even be aware of.

“There’s a strong mental health and behavioral health component to COVID. We need to be aware that it’s not just a virus that affects the rest of your body,” said Richard Smith, M.D., the recently retired director of the Psychiatric Research Institute at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in Little Rock. “There are multiple psychological and social psychiatric issues that come into play during this pandemic.”

Enter AR-Connect

To address this mental health crisis within the COVID crisis, UAMS launched AR-Connect, a treatment program providing mental healthcare to individuals experiencing any number of issues. A team of board-certified mental health professionals offers immediate care and can help callers recognize warning signs and explore treatment options in their local area – all through a 24/7 crisis
hotline that doesn’t need referrals or insurance.

“The AR-Connect program was born out of the pandemic,” said Dr. Smith. “We were up and running, operating 24/7 within four weeks of the public health emergency.”

The AR-Connect program turned out to be exactly what both Christie and Jim needed.

In their search for qualified people to staff AR-Connect, UAMS identified newly unemployed school-based mental health providers, like Christie.

“UAMS said, ‘Hey, we have a whole team of providers who might be looking for work,’” Christie said. “I love how UAMS utilized school therapists to launch this program. I love that
I get to be a part of this.”

In fact, Christie was one of the first hires. She was a part of the team that joined AR-Connect Program Director Anthony Boaz, LCSW, in the planning stage.

“We mapped out on a whiteboard how to do this,” she said.

Christie took on a supervisory role. As the clinical supervisor for AR-Connect, she helped build a staff that now includes eight full-time therapists – each one seeing an average of 30 patients a week.

AR-Connect even gave Christie the opportunity to work with the parents of many of the students she worked with at school.

“Before, I was only treating the child,” she said. “But, once AR-Connect launched, I could tell the parents ‘this is your session.'”

But there were many, many more parents out there who needed help, too. Like Jim.

“Jim called AR-Connect because he had lost his job and was at home with his son, and he recognized that he needed help,” Christie said. “It turns out Jim had experienced a childhood trauma that he had never dealt with. He suppressed it by going to work early in life and by self-medicating with alcohol. He became a functioning alcoholic.”

But, what really motivated Jim to call was when he looked at his son and realized his son was about the same age he had been when he had suffered his childhood trauma. Jim realized his son needed a father to prevent that from happening to him.

And calling the hotline was simple.

“He loved the fact that our sessions were virtual,” Christie said. “He could just pick up the phone for treatment.”

The fact that AR-Connect is virtual probably contributed to Jim making contact in the first place.

“If it was an in-person appointment, he would have had any number of opportunities to back out,” Christie said. “He could have found an excuse to not leave the house, not get in the car. He could have decided to drive somewhere else, to the store. Even if he arrived in our parking lot, he could have found an excuse to not come inside – there would have been four or five roadblocks that could have stopped him.”

But he did call.

“Jim was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress with delayed onset,” Christie said.

She went back to the original whiteboard mapping session to see what kind of treatment was best for him. It called for an 8-week protocol. They began sessions. One of the things Christie prescribed for Jim was for him to find an activity that he enjoyed doing and then to engage in that activity with his son a couple of times a week – whether he felt like it or not.

“He did wonderfully with it,” Christie said. “Before long he started sharing with me, ‘I haven’t had a drink in two days, one week, three weeks.’”

And before long Christie and Jim had reached the end of their 8-week plan.

“We are a short-term program,” Christie said. “So, when we completed our protocol with Jim, we tried to get him into something more long-term.”

Jim sat in on a session of Alcoholics Anonymous.

“That wasn’t his cup of tea,” Christie said, “but he found a sobriety app where he could connect to others sharing his struggle and it has really worked for him. He has since replaced drinking with a new hobby and has poured himself into a different activity.”

Funding Behavioral Health

It is stories like Jim’s that illustrate the importance of investing in behavioral care in Arkansas. That is why the Blue & You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas was compelled to provide Arkansas-based programs (including AR-Connect) $5.29 million in grants to improve access to, and awareness of, behavioral health programs.

“Arkansans with mental health conditions should be able to easily access treatment, but lack of awareness of behavioral health conditions and resources, and the stigma associated with receiving this care remain significant barriers,” said Rebecca Pittillo, executive director of the Blue & You Foundation. “Our goal is to build these programs and connect them in such a way that everyone can easily receive the care they need.”

In addition to quality therapists, AR-Connect provides access to vital resources.

“We have a whole team of care coordinators whose job is to connect people with the resources they need,” said Christie. “Food pantries, shelters, help with rent, medical care and so on.”

A virtual resource center on the AR-Connect webpage includes a map of Arkansas divided into regions.

“You just click on your region, and it will take you to all the resources in your area,” Christie said. “You can even break it down by category, like food, rent, medical, whatever.”

AR-Connect even has a “gap group” to help patients after they’ve finished their program while they wait for long-term care.

What makes these resources even better is their availability to patients at no cost.

“What sets us apart is that our patients don’t have to pay,” said Christie. “This will never have the power it does, right now, when people have to start paying.”

The cost of care is yet another roadblock that can prevent a patient from reaching out. But that roadblock was not in the way for Jim.

“Every now and then I’ll get a text from Jim,” Christie said. “’Back in the workforce,’ ‘Sober five months and started my own business.’”

The day Christie agreed to be interviewed by Blueprint, she received another text from Jim.

“Nine months sober today.”

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