YSS has gone virtual, offering telehealth counseling services in an effort to meet the growing community needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.


According to Andrew Allen, president and CEO at YSS, the organization made the switch to virtual therapy to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus while also allowing its staff to continue “to connect with people that need some additional support during this challenging time.”


“There’s so much focus on physical health right now, and ensuring we keep people physically well. That is appropriate, but having said that, the unintended consequences of social isolation and social distancing is really a disconnectedness,” Allen said. “In this time of uncertainty, the community’s need, especially around mental health, is increasing.”


YSS, which is headquartered in Ames and has locations in Ames, Boone, Des Moines, Marshalltown, Mason City and Webster, but offers its services — psychiatric consultation, behavioral health intervention, integrated health, substance abuse counseling and mental health therapy — to all individuals and families throughout the state.


“While YSS has its roots in supporting kids in the child welfare system, over the last 45 years we’ve grown to be a comprehensive child and family organization meeting the needs across the community. My hope is that people will consider YSS the place for mental health services, whether you’re a child, a parent or a family member with any mental health need,” Allen said.


He is hopeful telehealth counseling, or tele-counseling, over Skype will help the organization’s clients, and all new clients who reach out for help in the future, handle the stress caused by COVID-19.


“We’re seeing increased levels of stress and anxiety. We’re seeing increased feelings of isolation. There are people who don’t fully understand what the stimulus looks like, and there are some financial stressors for folks who have become unemployed,” Allen said. “So we’ve got therapists in their homes talking to kids and families in their homes … helping them to deal with all the issues they’re facing.”


Andrea Dickerson, director of behavioral health at YSS, said those issues are expected to continue long after restrictions are lifted as families try to return to their “new normal,” and she hopes people will reach out and get help from the organization.


“Physical health absolutely needs to be front and center, but when the restrictions are lifted and people start to go back to a kind of state of normal existence, the mental health and substance use needs are still going to be here,” she said. “There’s going to be such an increase in that, and that’s going to be longstanding, for those struggling with the trauma of their experience … I think we are going to continue to see an increase in need from our communities.”


According to Dickerson, tele-counseling has been available at YSS for years, but at a much more limited capacity. Due to the state lifting certain restrictions to better allow for social distancing, however, YSS made the full switch.


It has gone well so far, Dickerson said, and has even led to a few benefits.


“We, on average, will see about 400 different clients among our different locations in a week, and we’ve barely skipped a beat with that. In fact, our no-show rate has been significantly less. More clients are actually showing up for their sessions,” Dickerson said.


One of the biggest obstacles the organization is facing with the switch to virtual is ensuring clients, both for its therapy and its transition services, have access to the internet. Dickerson said many who would often depend on internet connections at libraries or coffee shops are left with nowhere to go now that many of those organizations and businesses have closed.


This has also been an issue for YSS’s case management, which is now being done over video conference. While many of the program’s youth have cellular phones, many can’t afford data plans to support the virtual connection, so YSS is working to develop a campaign which would allow community members to sponsor a data plan for its transition-aged foster and homeless youth clients.


According to Allen, details on that campaign will be released later this week or next week.


In addition to offering tele-counseling, YSS has implemented other changes to ensure the health and safety of the community and those they serve. Certain school-based programs have been paused while school is not in session, new procedures have been put in place at residential facilities, and about 100 staff began working from home.


“Just three weeks ago, we had no idea the sort of disruption that would be caused by COVID-19, and I’m just so proud of the way that our employees have rallied around the community need that still exists,” Allen said. “My focus is really on balancing the health and well-being of our staff alongside our community’s needs, and the need right now is great.


“We’re still providing mental health services, especially given the increased levels of stress and anxiety, and I am so grateful to the team at YSS who continue to show up every day and meet those needs.”