Melanie Dallas: 2020 year in review: Partnerships, priorities and a pandemic

Melanie Dallas

It almost goes without saying that a year-end review of 2020 will include COVID-19. Indeed, the pandemic caused unprecedented disruption to our organization — as it did to the communities we serve — and managing it required a coordinated, all-hands-on-deck response, as well as vigilance and creativity.

As a community service board (CSB), state leaders deemed Highland Rivers Health — and all Georgia CSBs — an essential service. I couldn’t agree more. CSBs are the state’s behavioral health safety net, providing treatment and recovery services to people who are low-income, uninsured or underinsured for mental health challenges, substance use disorders and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Without CSBs, many of Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens would not have access to behavioral health services, even as COVID-19 has caused anxiety, isolation and in too many cases, death and grief. There has rarely been a time when behavioral health services have been more essential — and they will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Toward that end, Highland Rivers Health made numerous changes to our operations so we could continue to meet the needs of our communities while also ensuring the safety of the individuals who rely on us. For example, our agency:

• Created an internal COVID-19 leadership group that met via conference call every morning and developed protocols for screening all individuals and staff. We quickly sourced personal protective equipment (PPE) to distribute throughout agency facilities.

Created and implemented COVID-19 plans in group homes for individuals with intellectual and developments disabilities (IDD) and sent training materials to all IDD host homes.

The Intensive Case Management team continued to meet with individuals in the community, with services delivered outdoors, in yards, in lobbies of apartments, in parks, etc., in order to maintain face-to-face meetings when possible.

Highland Rivers staff donated more than 1,000 of leave to an agency "leave bank" for co-workers who had to miss work due to illness or quarantine.

Our information technology department worked to enhance network broadband capacity to support an unprecedented shift to online operations and increased use of telehealth services.

But inasmuch as COVID-19 was a priority, our agency also continued to innovate, form new partnerships and expand services in our communities. In 2020, Highland Rivers:

Began a partnership with Mercer University with a planning grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration to address the opioid crisis in four counties served by Highland Rivers (Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon and Polk).

The Assertive Community Treatment team developed a “mobile clinic” using one of the agency’s passenger vans that was staffed with a driver, registered nurse, clinician and psychiatrist, as well as PPE, to fully serve individuals in one stop.

The Rome Crisis Unit affiliated with the Medical College of Georgia (northwest campus) so that 10 medical students per year could complete their four-week psychiatry clerkship at the CSU.

Provided suicide prevention and post-vention services to more than 2,400 youth ages 10-24, and provided Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) training to more than 600 individuals.

Worked with agency’s website vendor to translate the Highland Rivers website into Spanish, with link to Spanish version available on the website homepage.

Successfully managed the cash reserves and met accounts payable commitments despite a challenging cash position throughout the fiscal year.

Streamlined the new employee onboarding process with implementation of DocuSign to allow for electronic processing of pre-employment and new hire paperwork.

Increased collaboration with Floyd County Jail mental health coordinator for increased jail transitions back into the community.

Expanded our partnership with Pickens County Schools to make APEX services available in all Pickens schools.

Of course, this list barely scratches the surface of all that happened, both related to COVID-19 and in our "regular" operations. Highland Rivers Health is proud to be part of so many outstanding communities in Northwest Georgia, and we look forward to building on these achievements in 2021.

Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for mental health, addiction and intellectual developmental disabilities in a 12-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Whitfield and Murray counties.

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