JERSEY CITY, NJ - Realizing that there is significant impact on the mental health of residents as a result of COVID-19, local health officials have led Jersey City’s effort to set up a number of programs to help people cope with the numerous issues such as loss of employment, isolation, and fears regarding lack of food or even loss of healthcare.

“There are a lot of aspects to this, job loss, and income in relation to that, such as how far income will go for purchasing food,” Jersey City's Director of Health and Human Services, Stacy Flanagan, said. “All these things add to the underlying stress.”

Jersey City was well ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic when it comes to addressing mental health issues, Flanagan added. “We started the process about two year ago looking into mental health."

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The effort also included utilizing a grant for what is called Mental Health First Aid, a course that teaches participants how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. The training gives the skills needed to reach out and provide initial help and support to someone who may be developing a mental health or substance use problem, or experiencing a crisis.

Calling the eight hour course “a triage for mental health,” Flanagan told TAPinto Jersey City that her department is trying to break it up into smaller segments of about 40 minutes each so people aren’t sitting in front of a computer for the entire stretch at once.

The program – although not developed as a result of the COVID-19 crisis – has provided a tool by which to help residents who may be struggling with the social and mental health side effects of the pandemic.

Another city program, JCRepond, developed in conjunction with Jersey City-based Latino organization PACO – focuses partly on the Hispanic community and provides information to the Spanish-speaking population, including where to get mobile crisis intervention, or even help at home.

Established in 2017, the Police Chaplain program, uses local clergy members to assist residents who are in difficult situations. The chaplains offer comfort, but also serve as a liaison to social services and other resources residents might need. “We trained about 40 clergy when the program was established,” Flanagan said. This effort, Flanagan suggested, not only provides people with a needed connection to social services, but also a link to their religious institutions the lock down has kept them from attending.

“Kids don’t have a lot of activities at home besides home school, and the library can be helpful,” Flanagan added, pointing to several digital services available through the Jersey City Public Library. But, since many poor families might not have access to the internet, the health department is working with the public library to provide hotspot internet connections. 

This is particularly helpful to immigrant families locked down and otherwise unable to connect to family members overseas. The program also helps provide tools such that will allow people to interact remotely. “We have delivered dozens of  hotspots to immigrants and seniors throughout the city,” Flanagan said.

The city also has several partnerships and has posted a few articles and videos on the city website, including information about the importance of bouncing back, and is providing a program for people, particularly first responders, who would like to meditate to help deal with the additional stresses of a COVID-19 life.

While Flanagan said a number of people have reached out to volunteer their medical expertise to the city, part of a tele-med program in English and Spanish, she lamented that the lock down has also contributed to an increase in domestic violence.

“There are increased tensions because people are together,” she said. “We are working with Women Rising to help reduce these issues.”

In an effort to overcome the feeling of isolation many people throughout the city, especially seniors, are feeling, Jersey City is also engaged in a food drop off program, as well as, utilizing lists generated from attendance at past events, making phone calls to senior citizens, while also providing additional support to those who have contracted COVID-19. “We do a follow up to see what they need and what they can’t get, and we’re working on getting services providers to help them,” Flanagan said.

While it has been, in many cases a difficult adjustment, Flanagan said that “people are finding out their strengths, and finding out about themselves.”

“Some are just learning to cook. Some may be starting to write a journal.”

In addition to visiting the city’s website to view a number of resources including HealthierJC which posts a calendar of online activities, Flanagan encouraged residents to add their own programs as well. Jersey City’s YouTube channel has also provided virtual classes from yoga to in home workouts.

“After 9/11 we came together as a community. But now, we can’t even hug each other to show we care,” Flanagan said. “There is disengagement. People are connected through the phone or computer. While people come to the door to leave groceries, we see a lot of people just inside waiting to open the door. They would like to be connected to see other people smile. But often the smiles are lost.”

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