While COVID-19 has stopped, or limited, personal interaction between people, the public still has access to all services provided by the Sumner Mental Health Center, as it does other healthcare providers, through tele-video and telephone communication.

“Ninety-nine percent of it is remote,” Rick Gaskill, executive director of Sumner Mental Health, said. “About 90 percent of our staff work from home.”

People who do still work in the office wear face masks.

Gaskill is emphatic about making clear to the community that the services provided by the mental health center, such as individual therapy, medication checks, marriage and family therapy, crisis services, substance abuse treatment and adult and children’s case management remain in place, albeit remotely.

“Statewide, people are responding extremely well,” Gaskill said. “The vast majority of our clients are very pleased that we’re trying to protect them from coming down with the virus. Obviously we don’t want them infected, we don’t want us infected.”

There are 26 community mental health centers in Kansas - all of them providing services by phone and tele-video. Tele-psychiatry, a technology pioneered in Kansas within the past five to eight years, paved the way for the tele-video communication mental health workers are having with clients now.

Community mental health center had tele-video services up and running very quickly, about two weeks for us," Gaskill said. "KDHE (Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment) and KDADS (Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services) have been very helpful and we're very pleased with the continuity of care as this prevents hospitalization to very vulnerable populations, which would greatly expand the problems we are all dealing with. My hat’s off to KDHE and KDADS for making this transition as seamless as possible by changing regulations and codes so quickly to make it possible."

There are between 1,200 and 1,300 people served by Sumner Mental Health at anyone time. There have been approximately 300 more people being served through the center over a year since the pandemic shut down started.

While there may not be a lot of individuals newly seeking services for themselves, there has been an upsurge of calls from police, physicians, teachers or simply neighbors, friends or relatives calling the mental health center, saying they are concerned about individuals needing services and not knowing how to access mental health services.

“I think if there is a positive part of this whole pandemic, it does appear that a lot of people are being increasingly more emotionally supportive of each other,” Gaskill said.

Psychological problems from pandemic

The isolation people are experiencing can adversely affect the mental health of individuals, Gaskill said. Clients who suffer from depression and anxiety under normal circumstances may have those pre-existing conditions exacerbated by the effects of social isolation, and people who do not ordinarily have psychiatric problems may experience them to varying degrees under the weight of isolation.

“Human beings are social creatures,” Gaskill said. “We live and survive through being in touch with others. Social isolation is hard on people. We need social stimuli.”

It may be hard on people to no longer go out for coffee with friends after church on Sunday or to participate in bowling leagues on Friday nights. People need to laugh, joke, shake hands and give hugs, Gaskill said.

Gaskill did say today’s technology gives society an advantage it would not have known if the pandemic and social isolation had occurred 25 or 30 years ago. Technology, such as skype, zoom and tele-video are great for enabling people to see and hear each other, but cannot entirely be a substitute for face to face communication, he said.

“Online communication is not as good as personal contact, but it’s better than no contact,” he said.

Along with the problems of social isolation, there is the uncertainty of people who have been furloughed from their jobs, don’t know if they ‘ll have a job to go back to when the stay-at-home orders are lifted, Gaskill said.

There also may be increased family conflict with all the members of a household together virtually all the time.

Contact information

People can contact Sumner Mental Health Center at (620) 326-7448 Monday through Friday between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. After hours, during holidays and weekends, emergency services can be called at 1-800-369-8222. The website is www.sumnermentalhealth.org and there is a Facebook page. When closed the office phone number will refer individuals to the 1-800 number.

In an emergency, an individual may be referred to the MHC's regional crisis center at Comcare in Wichita for observation and stabilization. Usually, such an emergency lasts about 24 to 72 hours. The person can now be referred to out- patient services..

The Regionl Center also has beds. Intoxicated people may not be safe to be alone and alcoholics may experience withdrawal through DTS (Delirium Tremens), with symptoms such as shaking, confusion and hallucinations that render them unsafe to be alone without medical attention. Most often, after the initial crisis and medical evaluation, clients enter treatment for substance abuse.

“The big message is that we haven’t gone away,” Gaskill said. “We’re still here providing services. We’ll be here for the duration of this.”

Other community resources from which people can receive help include:

The Sumner County Health Department at www.co.sumner.ks.us/.

Head Start and CDDO (Community Developmental Disability Organization) www.futures-unlimited.org

NAMI - National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.nami.org

Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center at www.wichitasac.com

Wellington Food Bank at 311 S. Washington Ave. (620) 326-5301

Catholic Charities at 217 N. C