Before New Jersey residents had ever even heard of COVID-19, fewer than half of the adults suffering from mental illness were receiving any services for their disorder. And that's not completely for a lack of trying.

As the public health crisis rolls on, professionals hope telemedicine efforts are doing enough to keep already-existing patients in check, and take on new residents who are willing to seek help.

"Although telehealth is not an appropriate solution for everyone, it's been found to be highly effective for many individuals," said Debra Wentz, president and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies. "Our members have shared that no-show rates have dropped dramatically ... and for many it eliminated the barriers of needing transportation and childcare."

When the pandemic first started wreaking havoc on the Garden State in March, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a measure that allows any healthcare practitioner to provide and bill for services using telemedicine, at least for the duration of the public health emergency.

Since then, Wentz said, agencies have been adapting their techniques to ensure that services delivered through telehealth are equally as effective as what's offered through in-person counseling.

For more intense cases that require in-person care, meanwhile, or individuals who couldn't access care remotely, face-to-face meetings have been able to occur outside agencies or the clients' homes, Wentz added.

"For group counseling, group sizes had to be reduced in order to comply with social distancing guidelines," Wentz explained. "To meet that need, some agencies expanded their office hours. Others instituted hybrid scheduling."

Within a week of the pandemic's onset in the state, National Alliance on Mental Illness New Jersey threw all of its programs online.

"With our support groups, you don't need a diagnosis, you don't have to be in treatment," said Jennifer Hughes, associate director of program quality assurance at NAMI-NJ.

The organization had never offered online programs prior to the public health crisis, but according to Hughes, NAMI-NJ's online presence will likely continue once the threat subsides.

"This has taught us as a mental health organization that accessibility to programs is so important," Hughes said.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 45% of the 51.5 million adults with a mental illness in 2019 had received mental health services in the past year.

The greatest barrier to receiving care, according to Wentz, is stigma. But individuals also face inadequate insurance coverage, and a shortage of professionals that's been a glaring problem for years.

"It's been difficult to recruit qualified staff for community-based mental health care and addiction agencies, and turnover has been high," Wentz said. "Without treatment, mental illnesses and addictions are likely to worsen and ultimately require more expensive treatment in hospitals."

Rahway resident Strawberry Gallagher, 31, took more than half a year to find a psychiatrist years ago. She leads support groups today and says there are a number of people struggling to find the right care during the pandemic — a potentially harder task in an almost exclusively remote world.

"I believe in interviewing therapists. It's like dating — you've got to find a good fit, somebody you're comfortable sharing with," Gallagher said. "Some people are desperate they go to the emergency room, which isn't as much of an option during the pandemic."

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