Justin Chase is the president and CEO of Solari Crisis & Human Services. Solari has been overseeing COVID-19 crisis counseling services through the Resilient Arizona Crisis Counseling Program since its inception in June 2020. The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System states “… the program has been providing services to assist individuals and communities in recovering from the challenging effects of natural and human-caused disasters through the provision of community based disaster relief, outreach, and education.” The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) have recently approved another extension of the grant originally awarded to AHCCCS, extending services through March 2, 2022.
In this Q&A, Chase discusses how the program has impacted Arizonans in mental distress throughout the pandemic, future plans for the program, and challenges brought on by the extremely high demand for behavioral health services in Arizona.
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Soraya Marashi: The Crisis Counseling Program grant launched in the peak of the pandemic has just been extended again. Why have these grant extensions been important for Arizonans?
Justin Chase: “The grant extensions have been really critical. The piece that’s unknown is the duration of the pandemic. At first we thought it was going to be two weeks, and then it was going to be a month, and then it continues to grow and have this unknown duration. And so … with [FEMA] and [the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)] who leads the Crisis Counseling program initiative, this is really an unprecedented type of critical incident that has such a long duration.
And so for us to be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the program–obviously the services are still needed–and so, being able to justify the continuation of the program was needed for sustainability to ensure folks that, again, were impacted or continue to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to get the support they need.”
SM: How is this program benefiting Arizonans? Why is crisis counseling so important in your state?
JC: “Crisis counseling is critical, especially for those folks that don’t historically think of asking for help in really identifying that the feelings I’m having, the reactions I’m having, are related to the pandemic or a traumatic impact that it’s having on my life and on my emotional state, in my relationships, and all of those aspects. COVID touches every aspect of our lives–no demographic [or]socioeconomic status is immune to the impacts of this.
So being able to make this available and let folks know it’s okay to ask for help and the resources are there at no cost to them to engage, and just to get some additional support … You start out with a short term interaction with the Crisis Counseling Program, and if you need longer term supports, then we’ll make those connections to get you the longer term [care] to continue to support [your] recovery. I don’t think we’re going to go back to normal, we’re going to have a new normal and [it’s] getting folks prepared for that and comfortable with where the board ends up.”
SM: Do you think a program like this should have existed before the pandemic started?
JC: “I think it serves a very specific purpose. [It’s] designed to be time-limited. And so should the resources be available more broadly, and access to mental health care resources? Absolutely, and [we are] continuing to do work in that regard. The uniqueness of this program is really intended to be short-term engagement. So really, that crisis episode.
I think the catchment of behavioral health services and the array of them that are available need to be expanded and increase the services in general that are available to the public, regardless of payer, regardless of your insurance status or any other restrictions that prevent access. We’re still overly reliant on emergency departments and first responders to be our first line of defense when it comes to behavioral health challenges, and I think that’s unfortunate.
Arizona has been blessed with a very robust crisis infrastructure and crisis system that allows us to be able to be responsive outside of the Crisis Counseling program … So when this program does sunset, I don’t feel it’s gonna be a big drop off. It’s just a transition of where people access the services, but I think the core of what’s being delivered will have a continuation thereafter.”
SM: What are future plans for the program?
JC: “So they do not see it being permanent under its current structure and status, so we are scheduled for it to sunset in March. So … we’ve built up plans for a wind down process, and not that services won’t be available, it’s just kind of the Resilient Arizona brand and the connection to FEMA and SAMHSA is going to transition more to a state-level service offering. So, we’re looking at alternative funding sources to keep the spirit and accessibility of the program alive. But it’ll look a little different.
Well over half the states have a crisis counseling program active, some [of which] may have already sunsetted. Ours was performing really well and still having a large impact on the community, and so that’s a big part of why it’s continued the duration that it has.”
SM: In terms of behavioral health services and programs, how do you think the state can better serve Arizonans in general?
JC: “The health care industry … was already struggling with workforce shortage issues and pay equity concerns regarding not keeping up with inflation rates and other things. So the workforce challenges were hard. We’ve been hit hard as an industry … during the pandemic and [with] the mass exodus of folks leaving the industry. We’re not seeing the incoming volume of new graduates that are entering the field. It’s lower than the amount of folks leaving the field, and we have a large group of clinical staff and leadership that are going to be retiring in the next few years, and [we’re focusing on] being prepared for that … I think the workforce shortage, in reality, it’s nationwide, but we’re feeling the impact here in Arizona.
A lot of work is being done around that, in how we support and engage … How we look at other things like tuition reimbursement and improving pay, breaking down barriers when it comes to credentialing for clinicians, so we’re seeing improvement there, but that’s our biggest impact right now. I mean, throwing more money is great, but if we don’t have staff to hire, it’s kind of all for nothing at that point.
So [we] continue to work on the workforce challenges and issues and make sure that these helping professions get the attention and support they need to be able to meet the community demands and needs. We’re doing really good in the urban areas, [but] rural and frontier regions still need support. When it comes to crisis services, we’re still heavily dependent on emergency departments and first responders to be that first line of defense when it comes to behavioral health emergencies and crises, and getting better supports in the rural areas I think would be a huge benefit and opportunity.”