Volunteer network hopes to address mental health needs for vulnerable people amid pandemic

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Image courtesy of Baltimore Neighbors Network.

A new volunteer network aims to connect Baltimore seniors with mental health resources during the coronavirus pandemic.

Baltimore City Councilmembers Zeke Cohen and Kristerfer Burnett, along with various community organizations, on Wednesday launched the Baltimore Neighbors Network to help people grapple with increased loneliness and isolation as Marylanders are asked to stay in their homes to slow the spread of the virus.

Cohen told Baltimore Fishbowl that seniors are not only at a high risk of being infected by the coronavirus, but they are also susceptible to increased panic, anxiety, stress, depression and other mental health issues.

Cohen said the pandemic has also made it difficult for volunteers to offer in-person assistance as they could be unknowingly carrying COVID-19 and spread it to others.

But the network will provide outreach online and by phone, so volunteers can connect with people in need of mental health support, he said.

City leaders joined with the Mental Health Association of Maryland, the Pro Bono Counseling Project, the Community Mediation Center, Coppin State University’s School of Social Work and various churches “to develop a program that would leverage the incredible passion of Baltimore’s volunteers and give them a safe way to communicate social solidarity to seniors,” Cohen said.

Burnett said members of his office were already calling seniors before the Baltimore Neighbors Network’s launch to check on them and make them aware of food distribution sites and other resources during the pandemic.

Some were not aware of those resources, but Burnett said a lot of the people his office talked to “just wanted to hear a voice on the phone.”

“A number of folks simply just wanted someone to talk to… To be away from each other, it’s not human nature,”he said. “We’re very social beings and this can have a real impact on people’s mental health and how they feel disconnected from society, so we’re just trying to bridge that gap.”

The city purchased a data set with the names, ages and phone numbers of Baltimore residents, which volunteers will use to call and check on those individuals for 15-minute phone calls, Cohen said.

The program will begin by contacting seniors, but later plans to expand its reach to other vulnerable populations, such as immunocompromised people and “folks who experience other forms of marginalization” like members of the LGBTQ+ community, he said.

The data set is not able to identify those populations, so Cohen said BNN will work with community leaders to make connections.

BNN will operate as a tiered system depending on the needs of the person being called.

If the person is in need of assistance, the volunteer will connect them with a mental health ambassador, who are clinical social work students at Coppin State. The organization is also starting to work with the University of Maryland, Cohen said.

By participating, aspiring clinicians can also earn field placement hours that are required as part of their coursework, he added.

Cohen said the ambassadors can provide support and, if the person appears to be heading toward a mental health crisis, the ambassador will connect them with a pro bono clinician through the Pro Bono Counseling Project.

Beyond that, the clinician can refer the person to a crisis hotline if they are experiencing suicidal thoughts or are starving, Cohen said.

If the person being called is not in need of assistance, the volunteers will ask them if they would like to become a volunteer themselves to provide peer-to-peer support.

Cohen said it was important for Baltimore Neighbors Network to be proactive in its outreach to seniors because conditions can quickly change.

“While someone may be in good mental health shape today, they may not be in a week or two. So it’s important to stay ahead of this, to be constantly assessing, and also just be constantly bringing positive energy to all of our seniors–not just those who are in crisis,” he said.

Volunteers do not require previous training, experience or any sort of clinical background.

Instead, the Baltimore Community Mediation Center will train volunteers to “actively listen” to the people they are calling and identify if they could be headed toward crisis. That training will take six hours over a three-day period, Cohen said.

The center’s Erricka Bridgeford, who is also one of the leaders behind the Baltimore Ceasefire movement, trained the network’s first cohort of volunteers, he said.

People can volunteer to be part of the BNN at baltimoreneighborsnetwork.org.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal ideations or is in crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-(800) 273-8255 or use the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Marcus Dieterle

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