C4 Innovations

Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change

Staying Connected during the COVID-19 Pandemic

An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Carlton Whitmore and Keris Myrick discuss engaging and supporting communities disproportionately impacted during COVID-19 by maintaining social connections while physically distancing with host Katie Volk. This episode is sponsored by the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center Network (MHTTC).

November 9, 2020

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Katie Volk, Host: [00:05] Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Katie Volk. Today’s podcast is sponsored by the New England MHTTC. Our topic today is focused on social justice during the COVID-19 pandemic. My guests are Carlton Whitmore and Keris Myrick. Carlton is a mental health advocate from Harlem, New York and the Director of Consumer Affairs for the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. Carlton, welcome. It’s good to have you here.

Carlton Whitmore, Guest: [00:32] Thank you.

Katie: [00:33] Keris is also an advocate, joining us from Los Angeles, where she works as the Chief of Peer and Allied Health Professions at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. Keris, it’s great to have you here with us as well.

Keris Myrick, Guest: [00:44] Great, thank you for inviting me.

Katie: [00:47] I’m really excited to have you both here today, as we think about the social justice issues that have arisen during the COVID 19 pandemic, as we’re about six or eight months into it. And I’m wondering, as you think about your work, and I’ll direct this first question towards Carlton and then Keris would love for you to chime in as well, how has your work shifted? What shifts have you made to your work over the last bunch of months?

Carlton: [01:15] I think the greatest impact on our response to the community has been centered around the urgency that we need to practice and the approach that we need to use to reach communities where they are. It became apparent very early on that there were communities that were being impacted more than others, that communication strategies were not reaching people who needed it the most, and that we needed to restrategize and come up with new approaches at a very fast pace in order to stay ahead, meet the needs of the community and avoid the devastating impact that this pandemic continues to be.

Katie: [02:04] Yeah, I would imagine that creativity has been key here. Keris, has this been your experience too on the West Coast?

Keris: [02:13] Yes. I think I could ditto a lot of what Carlton has already said and maybe add a little bit more because people are not familiar with Los Angeles County. It’s a very, very big county. It’s 10 million people, and we range from what looks rural to us is desert. And then what looks urban, pretty much like an urban city and then you have suburban. So we spread all of this in this one county. And so being able to meet a majority of people where they are, and then do it in brand new ways because of needing to have difficult distancing. But we recognize with people with lived experience the importance of social connection and not breaking those connections, but actually finding ways to make them tighter during this time, supporting communities that are considered vulnerable and more impacted, finding new ways to support people who are unhoused.

Keris: [03:11] We really had to get creative and get creative fast and shift a little bit of how we did things to be able to not leave folks out in the midst of what was happening, and use our lived experience of having gone through trauma and crisis of like just the mere nature of living with a mental health condition and the journey of that recovery is one of understanding crisis and working through trauma. And sometimes doing it and natural disasters that we’ve had before, earthquakes, fires, we’re called in to do that work at that time as well. So thinking now in this pandemic situation, how do we do that? And we really pivoted, I think, quite quickly and then found out some areas where there was greater need than we anticipated and had to figure out how to support people. For example, you don’t have access to technology. Yeah, great. Tele-health, fantastic, woo-hoo. Kids going to school on computer, not so woo-hoo, but if you don’t have computer, if you don’t have broadband, how do you do that?

Katie: [04:21] Yeah. In the wake of any disaster, I think connection is key in the wake of or during, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, finding new ways to connect, I think has just been so key to all of our well-being. I’m wondering what some of the strategies both of you have used to stay connected or to reconnect with people as we’ve adapted over the last few months?

Carlton: [04:47] Well, I think as Keris mentioned, the utilization of technology has been very helpful and assisting people to stay connected. But just to back up just a little bit, I mean, especially in the early days, and even when we weren’t sure exactly how big of an impact this was going to be, and the guidance that communities received was about the social isolation. And for many communities, including people with lived experience and recovery, practicing self-care and wellness, the idea of social isolation is the opposite of their wellness practice.

Carlton: [05:30] We know that connection and support contributes hugely to well-being and having a supportive community. And when people were instructed to socially isolate, and frankly, I always thought that the social isolation category was not really reflective of what needed to happen because it wasn’t really social, it was physical that people needed to separate from each other. But socially people need to remain connected, use their supports, share resources and all of these things that require ongoing communication and support in their communities, which communities that have traditionally been marginalized have been practicing and have been skilled at in many ways, because of the lack of services that they had received in the past.

Carlton: [06:25] So we saw a lot of resiliency and a lot of the communities that were being impacted the most. But the other guiding factor was, and one way it was simple in the sense that we followed the data. The data and the impact were showing up tremendously higher in some of the communities that we knew that were traditionally marginalized. And so those were the areas that we were able to dedicate and focus additional resources on early on in the process in order to make sure that individuals weren’t being left out.

Katie: [07:03] I’m so glad that you mentioned that because one of the things I wanted to ask about was the disparities and the marginalization that has gone on. And I’m wondering if maybe each of you could name those communities if you would, because I think it’s important to say out loud where this has hit the hardest and when people hear marginalization and when they hear disparity, their mind goes to certain places, but let’s name it. And so Keris, what does that look like in LA and then Carlton, I want to hear what that looks like in New York City as well.

Keris: [07:35] So I think so people can understand LA, I’ve talked about how big it is, 10 million people. It’s also incredibly diverse. We talk about threshold languages. Those are the communities that are monolingual are low English literacy, if you will, that are predominant. And so there are 13 of those threshold languages. They’re really 26, but we have to focus on 13, which is interesting. So I think we can start there, but I think when we started to look at COVID statistics, what really became apparent was where populations were most affected, by like your X percentage population, but there’s three times more rate of COVID infection and COVID death. And that was in the African-American population. And then next was the Latino population. So we can see this immediately in this population. And so how to make sure that services are meeting the needs of these particular populations that we’re getting out to them and ways that they can be received and activated.

Keris: [08:44] So we had to do things that were not just linguistically relevant, because if you talk about the African-American population, people thought, “Oh, well no they speak English. We don’t have to do anything special.” And it’s like, well, yeah, no, yeah, yes, you actually do have to do something that is targeted for this population in ways that, I’m African-American, that I would or other people who are African-American would receive the information, interact with the information, engage with the people. And it may not look like how we do it with other populations.

Keris: [09:20] And I think that was a, I’ll just say this as Keris Myrick, not as LACDMH, I think that was a little bit harder for us to think through, that if somebody is delivering the information in English, then perhaps we have done our job. And it’s like, no, I think again, it has to be culturally congruent. It has to meet people where they are, because a lot of folks may be that people who are providing services, they may be the frontline workers, they may be the grocery clerks, they may be the fire fighters. They may be all of these people who are being greatly impacted. So we have to have that conversation in a different way than we might normally, as the Department of Mental Health, helping people think about their emotional response, emotional resiliency, and then also getting the information out about COVID itself and contraction and safety.

Katie: [10:21] Certainly. And Carlton, what has that looked like in New York City? Where are you seeing disparities show up?

Carlton: [10:28] The communities are similar, not the exact same as Keris mentioned. And we were able to do an overlay in some of the neighborhoods that had traditionally been identified as the underserved and having the communities that we felt we needed to do better outreach with. I think in this situation, we were prepared to some degree because of the diversity of New York City and the recognition of the practice of community engagement and outreach. And that it wasn’t just about showing up at someone’s door or being at the local school or the local gym. It’s about the engagement piece, about how to identify community leaders, how to have partners with communities. Again, how to reach people in a time of isolation, whether it’s through their faith-based leaders, whether it’s through the barbershops, whether it’s through any of the businesses that communities traditionally rely on.

Carlton: [11:40] And this was even when there was a lockdown and a lot of these businesses were closed, because of the work that we had done before, there was a network that was already in place and the leaders in that community were just tremendously helpful in making sure that individuals were getting the information, the up-to-date information, because the information changed a lot very quickly, and were really committed, when the infrastructure was still being put in place, committed to partnering with the city, with agencies in order to ensure that their communities were as safe as possible.

Katie: [11:20] It’s that whole idea that although we’re physically distanced, we need to be socially connected. I hear that so much in what you both are talking about. And I think that’s a really important distinction for our well-being. And that leads me to one of my next questions. I have so many, but one of my next questions was, can you think of maybe some examples or some stories that have arisen out of these conversations of things that are going well, what’s working?

Carlton: [12:48] Sure. I’d like to provide an example of that. And one that happened very quickly and one that was not necessarily expected or not something that we were looking to see this amount of activity and this amount of connection in, and that has to do with the supports people have in the recovery community, in particular in the 12-step community.

Carlton: [13:16] And the example has to do with the fact that I would say even prior to larger agencies having very specific communication strategies, a lot of the 12-step communities and fellowships created a network that ended up connecting around the world, which had the end result, that people were able to connect to meetings virtually anywhere around the world, any time of the day, in a way that had never ever happened before. And yeah, there’s a discussion around virtual versus person to person, face to face. That’s a different discussion. But the resiliency, the creativity, 12-step groups and meetings are self-supporting and within a month or so, like I said, any language, a lot of countries have English speaking languages, they created a level of support that was unparalleled. And it was just amazing to watch and see people be that resourceful with little or no money.

Katie: [14:32] Yeah. I know I’ve heard that about the 12-step community from friends and family in my own network, just how quickly all of that came together and what a support it’s been. And Keris, I can tell you’re ready to jump in. Tell us what’s on your mind.

Keris: [14:47] Oh my goodness. It was really incredible to see how the peer community was able to adopt and pivot and do it very quickly. I think it was kind of interesting, like at first it was like, “Oh, people with lived experience are going to be more vulnerable and more impacted negatively.” And it’s not to say that people aren’t impacted emotionally by all of this. But what’s really interesting is how quickly our peer groups pivoted to putting their groups online, even the ones that are operating within the Department of Mental Health, which you might imagine has a lot of bureaucracy and, oh my gosh and just can’t easily just do things. It was much easier, I think for the peers to pivot and pull their groups and things online. So just in LA County for the mental health peer groups and peer organizations, there are over a hundred different types of online support groups.

Keris: [15:47] And then what was really interesting too, so they’re supporting people in different languages and all different types of things that are needed from 12-step type groups to other type of support groups. So one of the things that we did to start because the narrative was around social distancing, and we really wanted to reframe it as the importance of as we know social connecting yet physical distancing, we partnered with the Temple University Collaborative on Community Inclusion to do a kickoff webinar for the community about this idea of social connection while physical distancing. So we could reframe the language and reframe how to think about it. And then the peer run organizations didn’t present a traditional webinar. It was like giving examples of, a tidbit, of here’s how we pivoted, here’s how we pivoted, here’s how we pivoted, from three different types of organizations.

Keris: [16:47] One of them was not a peer organization, but there’s a lot of work with the Indigenous communities here. And we wanted to showcase what are the Indigenous communities in LA County doing to socially connect? And they were doing beading circles. And I actually took part in the beading circle. I’m like, “How do I do a beating circle online?” They deliver the beads and the pockets and everything to you with the instructions. So they’ll drive around LA if you need them to deliver the packets of materials to you, drop them off at your door, so that’s the safe way to do it. And then you join online and you join a beading circle, run by the Indigenous circles to follow this. It was quite amazing then to see how people were connecting in culturally relevant ways, even though they’re doing it online. So those are some examples.

Keris: [17:40] And also we crossed boundaries of how the county works. Usually we’re in our own service areas, as well as what things just needed to be done. It’s like almost a all hands on deck. And the peers were able to, if they knew that some of the people they served, like for the Peer Resource Center, we recognize that some of the people were not new who were unhoused, who we were providing services to, were no longer being housed in what we would call Project Roomkey, it’s kind of a safe place for folks to be so they’re not out on the streets.

Keris: [18:15] They were being displaced in a completely different service area. Well, they didn’t trust the people there, they wouldn’t connect with the team. So our peers actually went to a completely different service area to connect with the people that we served and then help them build trust and relationship with the folks that were now in this service area, in the Project Roomkey, so that people would, again, not socially isolate out of fear of connecting to people that they didn’t know. So I think everywhere where we thought something might be, “How are we going to do that?”, the creativity, the inventiveness, and I think ultimately the absolute care for their communities had people overcome any barrier that was there. It was really incredible.

Katie: [19:01] Those are such wonderful examples. I think if there’s anything I’ve learned from my work in the recovery community, it’s that never underestimate the creativity of people in recovery, for sure. It’s a huge resilience factor in my experience. And we’re running short on time here, but I’m curious for each of you, in just a sentence or two, Carlton, we’ll start with you, and then Keris, we’ll go to you. But the question I like to end our podcast conversations on is what have you learned about resilience over the last seven or eight months?

Carlton: [19:34] I don’t know if this is something that I necessarily learned within the last few months, but it was definitely confirmed, and it definitely surpassed my past experience and my expectations about the resiliency of communities and how we need to ensure that we hear the voices of communities because there’s so much information and so many resources within a community that we may not always have access to, and we may not always listen to. But that mechanism, that way of communicating to hear about how communities not only survive, but continue to grow and support one another in times of challenge, which like I said, it’s not a lesson just learned because communities with little or no resources historically have been able to do this in ways that has traditionally not been as recognized outside of those communities as they have within those communities. So for us to be able to be in a position where we ask more questions, where we listen more, where we respond more, instead of interacting with communities in a way that appears or implies that we may have all of the answers.

Carlton: [21:03] And this recent scenario forced us to do that. No one had all the answers, and we needed everyone to be a part of how we responded to this. And some of those communities that were traditionally looked at as having the least resources or marginalized communities were some of the communities that we learned the most from.

Katie: [21:28] So beautiful. So beautiful. And Keris, how about you?

Keris: [21:32] Wow. I wish I could say it so articulately in just a few sentences, but during this time of racial injustice, social unrest, all sitting within a pandemic, has put a magnifying glass on the areas where we need to do our work in much better and intentional ways. And I think it’s brought us together more than pulled us apart about how to do that and how to really listen to, and be responsive to the needs of the communities who have traditionally not been served well by us. So I think the other thing is it really brought to bear the importance of the peer community for us in LA, because the peers tend to mirror the very communities that we’re trying to reach. And so how can we capitalize on having folks who look like, speak like, culturally are aligned, LGBTQ2SIA aligned and utilize them to help really solve some of these and reduce some of these gaps. That’s what I think we’re moving towards, and really capitalizing on.

Katie: [22:52] Keris and Carlton, it’s been so wonderful to have this conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time to be here.

Keris: [23:00] Thank you so much.

Carlton: [23:01] Thank you for having us.

Katie: [23:02] And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika Simon, Producer: [23:06] Visit C4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode is sponsored by New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, and was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Our host for this series is Katie Volk. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

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