Worker shortage stymies mental health agency

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By Melanie Lekocevic

Capital Region Independent Media

The Cairo building where the county’s Mental Health Department is housed. Contributed photo

CAIRO — The employee shortage that has struck across many industries has now come to local mental health resources.

Jason Fredenberg, director of community services and the mental health department for Greene County, told the county Legislature July 6 that a number of unfilled job positions is forcing the agency to reduce available services for new, non-acute clients.

“Currently the demand for our services is really quite high and we are very much struggling with a staffing shortage — it is hitting us very hard,” Fredenberg told the Legislature. “I know this is affecting lots of businesses all over the place, but certainly the mental health community is struggling with that across the state as well.”

The agency has a number of vacant positions and very few applicants seeking those jobs, he added.

The shortage has left Greene County Mental Health struggling to meet the needs in the community.

“We are at a point where we are really having a hard time keeping up with demand,” Fredenberg said.

The agency consulted with New York State Office of Mental Health to see what can be done to remedy the situation.

“We need to hold off, temporarily — this is a temporary measure — hold off on taking non-acute clients with referrals to the clinic,” Fredenberg said. “We are required and still able to see all people who are being discharged from the hospital — by regulation, anyone being discharged from a psychiatric unit we need to see within five business days. We will continue seeing those folks, and also a few other unusual circumstances and classifications of clients that we are required to take, but the general person who calls up the clinic and wants to engage our services that are not acute, we need to refer them out to community providers right now because we simply can’t keep up with the demand.”

The move will be temporary, Fredenberg stressed, and the situation could be resolved by September.

“We have a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel because we have two people that we are in the process of hiring,” Fredenberg said. “There are multiple steps for them to go through in getting their license through the state because they are recent graduates, and with our HR (human resources) process, we are hoping they will both be on by September, which should help.”

Two graduate students are also expected to join the department in September as interns, which could also help to alleviate the strain, he added.

“Just to give you an idea what the demand is and what we are dealing with — our children’s services team, we have over 30 new intakes coming in and we are booked out until October, and on our adult side, we are booking intakes in August, but we have 61 on the waiting list right now that are waiting to be assigned. We are really maxxed right now.”

Legislator Harry Lennon, D-Cairo, said he has seen the mental health building, which is located next to Angelo Canna Town Park in Cairo, dealing with high demand.

“I have seen this at your office — at 9 o’clock, you are already extremely busy, right at 9 o’clock,” Lennon said. “I have seen this coming and I think you are definitely going beyond. We thank you and your staff.”

Individuals who call the department asking for assistance will be screened before they are referred to another agency, Fredenberg said in answer to a legislator’s question.

“We screen for all major risk factors — those who could be a potential danger to others — we screen for all that,” he said. “Sometimes someone calls and it sounds like a non-acute case, but as soon as you scratch the surface a little and hear a little bit more about what is going on, you realize maybe they can’t wait until October. We also have staff reach out to people who are on the waiting list and check on them and check their status and see if they are still interested in getting services, because sometimes people change their mind.”

The Greene County Mental Health Department currently has a case load of 70 adult clients and 50 children ages 5 and up, Fredenberg said.

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