DANIEL WORTHEY: His call for help was answered by AR-Connect.

For many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic is a dark cloud over our heads: There is no joy in Coronaville, at least not of the pre-pandemic variety, and we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.

For some, though, there is deeper suffering, from job loss and mounting bills, the threat of being booted out by the landlord or, the worst, the death of a loved one. Along with financial worries, many are experiencing loneliness, anxiety, depression, even fear.

Daniel Worthey didn’t lose a job, but he did begin to lose his temper, and, as social worker Christie Kelly explained to this reporter, anger is an outgrowth of depression. Worthey, 36, the facility coordinator for the M18 Recovery nonprofit for men with substance abuse, found himself ruminating, unable to resolve a problem at work and on a mental merry-go-round. It was a matter of “too much energy put on the situation,” Worthey said.

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He wanted help, but he didn’t want to use the counselor at his workplace. Getting an appointment with a therapist can take weeks. So Worthy began a search on the internet, where he found AR-Connect, a program of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ Psychiatric Research Institute. The 24/7 telephone and videoconference service, funded by a $2 million federal grant, kicked off May 4 to help people dealing with COVID-19-linked mental health issues and seeking immediate relief.

“Normally, my schedule would be so swamped I wouldn’t have time to think about other issues,” Worthey said. But with the virus, he and the people served by M18 couldn’t perform the service to others — like doing yard work for the elderly or helping people in their church — that had filled their days. He could no longer work out frustrations at the gym. With less to do, he said, he began to “dwell on the smaller stuff.”

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Worthey had never had “any type of mental health issues” before. When he called AR-Connect, he didn’t know what he needed, and he didn’t think he had time for counseling. He just told the therapist, “ ‘Give me some medicine.’ I was really mad.” He added, “You can imagine how that sounds.”

As are all who call AR-Connect, Worthey was first evaluated by the intake staff and set up with an appointment with a therapist (by phone at his request) for more detailed assessment, diagnosis and treatment planning. Those appointments come within 24 hours after the initial screening. After the phone meeting with Worthey, the therapist set him up with AR-Connect’s psychiatrist, Dr. Jon Rubenow, who spent an hour with him. Rubenow did prescribe a medicine, Zoloft. Continued counseling and the medicine have turned things around. “I feel like I have time to think,” Worthey said. “Before, I just had no filter. Now, I have more filter and more patience.”

AR-Connect does more than provide immediate mental health therapy: Its client care team also helps patients find resources like food and shelter, even free dental care; for Worthey, they are connecting him with a general practitioner for his other medical needs. The team has compiled a 280-page manual of programs across the state, like community action agencies, mental health agencies, churches and other organizations that will assist people with any number of needs.

Courtesy UAMS
CHRISTIE KELLY: AR-Connect supervisor describes the team as diverse and compassionate.

Perhaps surprisingly, a portion of the 145 patients served so far by AR-Connect are teenagers. AR-Connect supervisor Kelly, a licensed clinical social worker who had been working with AR-Connect director Tony Boaz at STRIVE, UAMS’ school-based mental health service before AR-Connect was established, said high achievers with a history of anxiety have turned to the program as school starts. Returning to in-person classes has made their anxiety more acute, and they worry about returning to the company of their peers. “Teenagers are struggling anyway, with where do they fit in,” Kelly said. On top of that social anxiety are fears they’ve fallen behind in their schoolwork and of getting sick with the coronavirus and taking it home to family.

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Another issue being handled by AR-Connect: Having to grieve alone. The support of friends that would normally ameliorate a person’s grief at the loss of a loved one is now strained: Social distancing means funerals restricted to family and fewer visitors bringing food, flowers and their comforting presence.

Being served also are exhausted health care workers, who appreciate the accolades the public has made but whose selflessness has made them forget to care for themselves. “You can’t pour out of an empty pot,” Kelly said, who knows firsthand the stress on health care workers: Her daughter is one. 

“People think therapy is lying on a couch and telling deep, dark secrets,” Kelly said. It is not; instead it is about hearing, validating concerns and offering new ways to think. For some, that means discarding negative thinking habits and “catastrophizing.” “We blame external events for our emotional reactions,” she said, but in truth, it’s a matter of perception and learning that things are not black and white. 

Kelly said that most of the patients she’s talked to don’t want medication; they feel like they should be able to get it together without that kind of help. But, she said she explains to them, when the problem is biological, you can’t will yourself out of depression. 

As the STRIVE program staff returns to schools, a new team has been assembled for AR-Connect: six mental health professionals, two care coordinators, an administrator and the psychiatrist. Callers will find “some of the most amazing, well experienced, diverse and compassionate people that they’re going to get on the phone,” Kelly said. “I mean, I just have to pinch myself to think, did we really get this amazing group of people that are so committed and excited about this program? 

“When you call, you’re going to get someone who listens and someone who cares and someone who has spent their entire life doing whatever they can to learn how to give the best care to this state and the people that call in.”

AR-Connect works with patients for four to six weeks and helps with referrals to other mental health professionals for long-term care. “We’re going to be that bridge,” Kelly said.  

Program manager Boaz said calls to the helpline have averaged 10 to 15 a week, but he expects that as awareness of the program builds, so will the calls: The pandemic does not show signs of vanishing any time soon. “People are hurting and scared,” Boaz said. “They’re calling for help, and they want to get better.” 

The program, funded by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Management agency, is for ages 5 and up. Boaz said UAMS got the program up and running in two weeks. “I’ve never seen UAMS come together” as it did for AR-Connect, he said.

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If persons have insurance, AR-Connect will bill it, “but if you don’t have insurance, we don’t care,” Boaz said; the service will be free. 

The AR-Connect call center number is 501-526-3563 or 800-482-9921. A virtual clinic operates 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri.