Executive Director Bernadette Kingham-Bez
Clinicians Frank Brittan and Jennifer Spitz
An Open Door and Access for All at St. Vincent’s
By Janice Llanes Fabry
The impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on behavioral health cannot be overstated, so when New York State shut down on March 20, St. Vincent’s Hospital stayed open. It became imperative that treatment services continue for all patients, no matter the level of care or rehabilitation required, nor whether they had telehealth capabilities. The on-site, long-acting injectable medication clinic also remained open.
“We tried to make the space here in the hospital as safe as one’s home,” said Frank Brittan, Administrative Director of Outpatient Addiction Services.
St. Vincent’s Hospital Westchester in Harrison offers inpatient and outpatient mental health and addiction treatment services to thousands of patients at its campus on North Street and at its offsite behavioral health centers in White Plains, Tuckahoe, and Port Chester. A division of St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Yonkers, St. Vincent’s also provides mobile crisis services for Westchester, and manages residential services for the County and New York City and operates opioid treatment centers in the City.
“We are passionate about providing access to all children, adolescents, and adults, and we take a person-centered approach to determine whether they are comfortable coming in person or using technology,” explained Executive Director Bernadette Kingham-Bez. “Our staff is highly sensitive to our patients’ needs.”
Already by mid-March, the hospital’s committed essential workers recognized the outbreak’s emerging long-term challenges and swiftly put protocols in place, from screening everyone entering the building to the routine disinfection of high-touch surfaces. The staff was armed with protective equipment, as well as emotional support. Social distance measures were observed in conference rooms and a telehealth model that included Zoom meetings was introduced.
For mental health and substance abuse patients, the problems caused by Covid-19 were exacerbated exponentially. As Brittan remarked, “The pandemic created a perfect storm.” By its very nature, he explained, it proscribed all the factors in our lives that are necessary for recovery, such as leading active lives, job responsibility, moving forward, social connection, and positive human interaction. Finding meaning and purpose became increasingly difficult and left many with an aimless existence, compounded by feelings of grief and loss.
Adults and adolescents alike were robbed of milestones and memorials, celebrations and opportunities. Moreover, the security that schools typically offer to so many children was lost. Their safe haven was abruptly yanked out from under them.
“Our mission is to care for people who are vulnerable and whom others have lost hope in,” noted Jennifer Spitz, Program Director of Outpatient Mental Health Services for adults, adolescents, and children. “If not here, then where?”
Spitz and Brittan pointed out that the level of disorders simultaneously involving mental health issues and substance abuse is extremely high. Although the approach is antithetical — mental health clients see therapists individually and might also participate in therapy groups, while the substance abuse model relies on group therapy with supplemental individual treatment — no issue can be dealt with in isolation.
“One of the amazing things about St. Vincent’s care is that it is integrated. We can’t treat one without the other,” said Spitz. “We also move along the patient’s path in a hands-on way.”
Brittan added, “The gold standard in our field has gone from addressing only specific problems to addressing the full spectrum and we can do that here.”
Tragically, the loss of structure and discipline, as well as isolation, has had profound irreversible effects. For example, the pandemic completely upended any headway made the last couple of years in the opioid crisis. As a result, there has been an unprecedented spike in opioid overdoses and deaths.
St. Vincent’s is also seeing an increase in the number of patients who are high functioning, much as it did after 9/11. “The unifying theme is trauma,” observed Brittan.
“This pandemic is something beyond our wildest imagination and there’s no shame in reaching out,” said Spitz.
Kingham-Bez suggested, “We need to be mindful about the needs of others in our community, whether people are feeling lonely, depressed, or anxious. We need to help reduce the stigma of people seeking help.”
In light of the pandemic, the nonprofit organization’s goal this year is to expand its telemedicine and video services, not possible without the donations and support of the community.
Coming up on October 6 is St. Vincent’s 37th annual Barbara Santangelo Golf Classic, named in honor of its founding chairperson. Although the golf committee is “taking a Mulligan” from gathering this year, donations can be made at www.stvincentswestchester.org/events.
In addition, the annual luncheon and fashion show will take a virtual spin and welcomes support for a Giving Tree on November 5 and a virtual holiday boutique November 3-5. For further information, call 925-5411.
Visit stvincentswestchester.org for Covid-19 mental health resources. For 24/7 telephone support, call 925-5959.