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Building bonds: A network forms in Baltimore to connect seniors to mental health services during pandemic

A network of Baltimore neighbors is reaching out across the city to ask seniors how they’re doing, whether they have enough to eat and if they’re feeling depressed.

If they are in need, the network stands ready to get them personalized help through the backing of nonprofits, mental health professionals, churches and social workers. The nascent effort is springing up in response to the coronavirus pandemic as a safety net being built around the people most in danger and most isolated: the elderly.

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Democratic City Councilman Zeke Cohen said the Baltimore Neighbors Network, as it’s being called, is in response to the belief the pandemic will bring a “deep and severe mental health crisis." The network will connect the many people who want to help with the many people who need help, he said.

“We are facing an epidemic of isolation and loneliness,” Cohen said. “Fortunately, we live in a city that is scrappy, that has a huge heart and anytime there is a crisis, Baltimoreans respond and step up.”

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It has started as a pilot program in Southeastern Baltimore and on the west side of the city. Over the coming weeks and months, the goal is to train 1,200 volunteers who will reach out to 85,000 seniors across Baltimore.

Calls started this week. So far, 16 volunteers have been trained. They are expected to reach out to 160 seniors.

The network will expand as organizers evaluate and assess the pilot’s successes and challenges, Cohen said. Organizers do not have a timeline, other than to expand as rapidly as possible to meet the need.

It is a collaboration between the city, Baltimore Community Mediation Center, Pro Bono Counseling Project, the Mental Health Association of Maryland, Coppin State University’s social work program and others. Cohen said the network is looking to raise $100,000 in private dollars to cover costs for six months, including software, a database of names and numbers for Baltimore seniors, and website development.

To get the network off the ground, the mediation center is pivoting from its typical work of providing conflict resolution to run virtual training sessions for the volunteers, handle many of the network’s administrative tasks and tap into its collection of highly trained mediators to join in the outreach.

“Communities are coming together, regardless of ideation, belief system, regardless of economic status or sector, and saying, ‘What do we need to do to get through this?’" said Shantay Jackson, who runs the mediation center.

The Pro Bono Counseling Project and its mental health professionals helped come up with a script for the volunteers to use to navigate the problems the seniors may describe, said Amy Greensfelder, the project’s director.

Her team is also helping organize a group of “mental health ambassadors" that include licensed therapists and social work students who will be able to give the seniors more specialized help.

Greensfelder said unlike other resources that require people in need to ask for help, the network’s approach is proactive and preventative.

"People are feeling so much stress right now,” she said. “They are trying to predict what their future may look like.”

More than 800 licensed therapists and other mental health professionals work with the project across Maryland. When one of the volunteers identifies a senior in urgent need, they will connect them with their services. Counseling will be free for those who do not have insurance or can’t afford their copay. Sessions will be provided over the computer or by telephone.

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If a senior doesn’t have a pressing mental health need but requests some help, the network’s ambassadors will help them navigate resources, such as help with utility costs, food assistance or transportation.

When a volunteer calls a senior, he or she will rate the senior’s response in four categories. Seniors in the first category will report feeling good and having their needs met. They may still want to join the network to offer peer support.

Those in the second category may say they are OK, but could use some support, such as being enrolled in the Meals on Wheels program. In the third category, seniors will show signs they are headed to a crisis, and they will be connected to therapeutic support. If a senior is in crisis, a category four, the volunteers will take immediate action by connecting them to the Baltimore Crisis Response hotline or taking other measures.

The calls are designed to last 15 minutes, and the volunteers will follow up over time.

The Church on the Square in Canton and its pastor, the Rev. Jim Hamilton, have helped create the network and offered the names of seniors to check on. Hamilton, an Episcopal priest, said the network’s mission is key, given the emotional strain the pandemic will cause.

“Seniors can feel like prisoners in their own space, or the emotional equivalency of it,” said Hamilton, whose church is an Episcopal-Lutheran hybrid that focuses on building community.

“It is part of the mission of our church to care for not just the physical, but the mental well-being of our neighbors.”

During the training, Jackson said the mediation center teaches the volunteers to practice “inclusive listening,” by hearing a person’s experience and needs without shaming or blaming them. The training also addresses ways to prevent elder abuse.

The volunteers walk through scripts they can use and practice how to address scenarios, such as what to say when a senior tells them they are not taking their medication and tucking it away to make it last longer.

Ultimately, the goal is to strengthen the intergenerational bonds through a network that lasts long after the pandemic is over.

Jackson believes the effort will restore a sense of community that has been lost in Baltimore.

“This is something that will be the foundation for communal relationships that we haven’t seen exist since I was a little girl,” Jackson said, “where we just take care of each other, where everybody’s grandmother is everybody’s grandmother, where everybody’s aunt is everybody’s aunt.”

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