The harms and hardships brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic are far reaching. While the crisis has had immediate public health and economic impacts, mental health implications are not far behind and, like the virus itself, the effects will not be felt uniformly. By indiscriminately threatening everyone, the virus has shone a spotlight on pre-existing inequalities in American systems, mental health disparities included. As a 2015 report from the Department of Health and Human Services notes, structural barriers—from a lack of transportation and a low availability of care providers to cost and insurance issues—are the biggest drivers of mental health equity, disproportionately impacting people of color.
In Minneapolis, the city’s Division of Race and Equity created an emergency mental health fund to address exactly these impacts across the city.
The COVID-19 Emergency Mental Health Fund is $200,000 to support mental-health providers that serve at-risk people who can’t get to in-person therapy, counseling, or other mental and spiritual health-related services. The fund was announced in late March by the city’s Division of Race and Equity’s ReCAST program, a citywide initiative to promote wellbeing and community healing by addressing systemic trauma through culturally specific services. That program is in turn funded through a larger five year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services.
With a focus on helping people of color, women, indigenous people, disabled people, and those who are undocumented, “the mental health fund, even though it was created kind of spur of the moment, is in line with the [department’s] goals of helping people access ways in which they can become better,” says Ebony Adedayo, the ReCAST Minneapolis program manager. “We already live in a very isolating society with so many mental health needs. How does social distancing exasperate things? We already know that domestic violence has increased, food insecurity has increased, people are losing their jobs and people are afraid of getting the virus. All of those things are just another layer on top of existing mental health concerns.”
The fund allowed for providers to apply for $2,500 to $7,500 in reimbursement-based funding to continue offering care to their clients or to take on new clients. (Because of a high number of applications, the department is no longer accepting new applicants.) Marlee Dorsey is a Licenced Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) and certified clinical trauma professional with her own practice, Reviving Roots Therapy and Wellness in Minneapolis, who focuses on intergenerational trauma and was encouraged by a previous supervisor to apply for the grant. Because Dorsey is still working out accepting insurance as a new practice, “being only private-pay right now makes it really hard for people to access [my] services,” she says.
Dorsey is using her award to offer six new clients six free sessions each. “I’ve had a waitlist of people, so I’ve contacted them to see if they’re interested. I have three people who filled three spots and three that are still open,” she says. “I’d like to be able to provide services at a lower rate, but at the same time I have to be able to take care of myself, so this has been a good way to be able to do that.”
The funds can also be used to build out necessary infrastructure—like the technology needed to offer remote services during social distancing—that can be used beyond the pandemic, but the majority of the funds are designed to make services themselves more accessible during the economic crisis COVID-19 has created. “[Grantees] are offering care to people who can’t afford it because they lost their jobs or don’t have insurance — they’re trying to reach hard to reach populations that can’t just call a therapist on retainer,” says Adedayo..
The funds are intentionally open to a broad interpretation of mental health providers in order to support the different, yet equally valuable, ways people receive mental health support. “Community health healers provide care to individuals but may not be licensed but have been doing work for a long time. They may have a different way of practicing that’s valuable and needed, but might not fall under traditional mental health and behavioral health work,” Adedayo says. “Many communities of color have spiritual practices that don’t fall along the lines of Wwestern medicine. Many immigrants, refugees, black, and indigenous folks don’t always trust licensed practitioners because of a history of harm.” To that end, the fund accepted applications from licensed practitioners as well as yoga teachers and Native American community health healers to ensure that a wide range of resources remain available during the COVID crisis. Because licencing isn’t a criteria, Adedayo notes that they chose applicants who had been providing services to underserved communities “for a long time.”
Because the fund needed to be established quickly in order to respond to the pandemic, Adedayo partnered closely with the city’s procurement department to process and approve applications in about a week, less than half the time normally required. She also created a toolkit to give to grantees in order to make sure they were all starting out with the same information and to try to answer some common questions right out of the gate. “Half of the [grantees] have received their contracts and are doing work. The next step is to make sure we get reporting and evaluation forms in and that they’re invoicing the city,” she says.
Of the short grant application and overall experience, “it’s been a good process. Ebony has been communicating with me and has been pretty responsive,” Dorsey says. “It’s a great opportunity for people to get assistance.”
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.