The ‘Invisible Front Lines’: How Brenau University Helps Unseen and Forgotten Populations Survive the Pandemic

Tara Lynch, an alumnus of Sullivan Foundation partner school Brenau University’s Women’s College, works on what she calls the “invisible front lines” of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lynch is a psychiatric mental nurse practitioner for Salveo Integrative Health, which provides behavioral and mental health services throughout North Georgia and statewide through community and organizational partnerships. She also works in private practice three days a week.

Lynch, who earned her B.S. in Nursing, said the current climate has been especially challenging for her clients, including the low-income, inadequately housed and homeless population she works with at Hope Clinic in Lawrenceville.

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“The homeless population has been largely unseen in this crisis,” Lynch said. “Often they depend on businesses such as fast food restaurants and coffee shops to be able to use the restroom, freshen up daily, obtain inexpensive hot meals and stay hydrated. With many dining rooms and restrooms closed, they have very limited options.”

photo of mental health nurse practitioner Tara Lynch in her white medical jacket

Tara Lynch

Lynch says anxiety and depression have also been a problem for her clients, especially among high school seniors who had to leave school early. And for more severely ill individuals, such as those diagnosed with schizophrenia, she says changes in their routines have been particularly devastating.

“Stability is key for this population, and the rampant conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 are difficult and frightening for this population,” she said.

Aside from delivering medication samples and making welfare checks on behalf of families who may not have heard from a loved one with mental health challenges, Lynch—like many others in her field—has been working from home since social-distancing measures were put in place. This has made it hard for some of her clients to get in-person treatment, since many of them do not know how to use technology, have limited or no internet access, or do not own a computer or smartphone.

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Finding treatment locations has also been a problem for Jennifer Langston, a Brenau University senior majoring in psychology and the executive director of Reboot Jackson. Langston’s organization provides peer support and resources to those seeking recovery from mental health and substance use disorders in Jackson County, Georgia.

“When people come to us now asking for help finding somewhere to go to treatment, we are hard pressed to find a place that is doing intakes because of COVID-19,” she said. “There is just nowhere for people to go.”

photo of jennifer langston of Reboot Jackson with colleagues in black logoed shirts

Jennifer Langston (right), executive director of Reboot Jackson, with colleagues

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Langston says the number of individuals that Reboot Jackson serves has more than doubled. The organization has moved its programming online and is providing support groups for those in recovery, including groups specifically for military veterans.

“This population is of deep concern at present in the mental health and recovery communities as they may be particularly vulnerable to relapse or experience other complications during this time,” Langston said.

Housing has also become a major barrier. Several treatment facilities to which Reboot Jackson normally refers people have shut their doors, and some have even asked current clients to leave and return at a later time. All Langston and her team can do is forge ahead with what is not beyond their control.

“My staff and I have tripled our efforts to connect with our peers and with one another,” she said. “We have been working in the office, working from home, answering our phones in the middle of the night—and juggling this all while trying to practice our own self-care.”

Like Lynch and Langston, Assistant Professor of Psychology Melanie Covert has also been busy on the mental health front. Covert is volunteering with the Georgia COVID-19 Emotional Support Line (866-399-8938), which provides support, coping strategies and follow-up resources for those impacted psychologically or emotionally by COVID-19.

Covert, who earned her master’s in clinical counseling psychology from Brenau, typically works the line four or five shifts a week, either from noon to 4 p.m. or midnight to 4 a.m. While that might sound arduous, she says she is able to do so from home while also fulfilling her other responsibilities.

“I am really grateful to be able to serve others in some small way and to do my part in helping our community get through this together,” Covert says.

Melanie Covert, instructor of psychology at Brenau University (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Department of Psychology Chair Julie Battle says Brenau University faculty members and students have done an amazing job of adapting to the current environment, even as they continue to do volunteer and other work outside of the classroom.

“We are working hard to support each other and to continue with our academic mission,” Battle said. “This is especially challenging for educational and clinical programs in which students provide clinical services to others as part of their training.”

Despite those challenges, she said Brenau continues to provide “an extraordinary educational experience.”

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That experience includes offering care and services for students during what has been a tough adjustment for some, an adjustment that Brenau Counselor Gay Baldwin says could potentially lead to cases of situational depression or anxiety.

Particularly at issue, Baldwin says, are the dynamics that students face when going back home and trying to complete schoolwork in an environment they might not be used to.

“Going to classes online, taking and studying for exams, writing papers, and doing all of that while parents and siblings are around – students have to set some boundaries,” she said.

Gay Baldwin

When the university moved from on-ground to remote learning, Baldwin says she made a note of students she typically works with and quickly reached out to them.

“I sent them all an email to let them know, ‘I’m here and available to help,’” she says.

Baldwin has been practicing telemental health for about four years, which she says made for an easier transition from mostly in-person counseling to sessions by email, text, phone, Zoom or FaceTime. Relaxed HIPAA standards in regard to telemental health and COVID-19 have also allowed her to provide better services.

“I’m just glad I can be here for our students,” Baldwin said.

This story was edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Brenau University website.

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