A high school senior lamenting his missed prom. A father watching his kids’ grades drop from A’s and B’s to F’s. A woman unable to visit her dying mother in a nearby hospital.
While each of these characters is represented by an actor in NY Project Hope’s six-part video series, their challenges are all-too familiar. Which is exactly what Future State, the Center for Practice Innovations (CPI) and New York State’s Office of Mental Health (OMH) were aiming for.
Faced with quarantine restrictions that prevented crisis counselors from proactively conducting door-to-door outreach, CPI contacted Future State in March of 2020 with an opportunity to be part of the FEMA-funded NYS OMH Crisis counseling Program response to COVID-19, NY Project Hope. The overarching goal was to address the forecasted behavioral impacts of COVID-19 by providing a crisis counseling-like experience for New York State residents.
Crisis counseling is a community-centered approach to disasters. Crisis counselors are often volunteers who are trained to offer support services including door-to-door check-ins, connections to community resources, education on the physical and mental effects of a crisis, and coping techniques to bridge the impact of the crisis.
Quarantine restrictions in New York prevented crisis counselors from knocking on people’s doors to offer support and resources.
When the collaboration with Future State kicked off, CPI and OMH could only speculate on the impact the pandemic would have on mental health. Even before the pandemic, the prevalence of mental illness was on the rise. In 2017-2018, Mental Health America (MHA) statistics showed that 19% of adults had experienced mental illness, an increase of 1.5 million people over the previous year’s dataset. During that same time period, 60% of youth with major depression had not received treatment, a troubling trend.
Anticipating that mental health needs would only rise in the face of the pandemic, CPI, OMH, and Future State recognized the need for crisis counseling support. With an outcomes-based mindset, the consulting team reimagined how to engage community members in quarantine and encourage resilience, empowerment, and recovery. Future State soon landed on an innovative approach to behavioral health that was embedded in pandemic routines: namely, binge watching TV episodes.
With a rapid timeline set by the growing crisis, the team created a series of multimedia episodes centered around a community member named Alex. Alex connected viewers to people in his neighborhood struggling with relatable problems, including job loss, food insecurities, racial violence, school and work from home, loss of rites of passages, health concerns, and the death of a loved one.
The episodes, built in Articulate Storyline, included video, animation, and self-care strategies to create a sense of community, connection, and support. The team imagined a crisis counseling experience for viewers, inviting them to the listening experience. A variety of ages and demographics were represented in the series, which was designed to be strengths-based and promote empowerment, resilience, and a path to recovery.
Over the course of the videos, the storylines showed viewers that they weren’t alone. Each scenario modeled strategies to reduce stress, identify recovery options, and promote coping strategies. The videos also connected viewers with a helpline staffed by crisis counselors to aid in their recovery process.
MHA screenings from January to September of 2020 confirmed that the number of people seeking support for anxiety and depression had skyrocketed. In fact, people taking the anxiety screening had increased 93 percent over the previous year. While that increase could theoretically be attributed to greater access, the rate of anxiety predictably peaked, with more than 8 in 10 people scoring moderate to severe symptoms. Even more troubling, respondents reporting frequent suicidal ideation had jumped to 37 percent since the start of the pandemic.
With greater access to vaccines, the struggles related to the global pandemic may be easing in the U.S., but there’s a long way to go. How individuals respond to stress depends on their background, social support from family or friends, their financial situation, and more. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, can affect anyone, anywhere. Not only does everyone experience the global pandemic as an individual, but also as part of a community.
Recognizing the impact of the pandemic on people and communities, the Future State team approached the project with empathy and with the same creativity and agility they bring to business solutions. The result was a human-centered solution designed to reach and include a wide audience, even in the face of isolating quarantine restrictions.
For nationwide crisis counseling resources, call SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline 800-985-5990, a 24/7, 365-day-a-year, free, multilingual support for people experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disasters, including COVID.