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The Tompkins County Office of Human Rights, in partnership with Tompkins County Health Department, hosted a panel discussion "COVID-19, Compassionate Mental Health and Social Services." In recognition that COVID-19 has brought even further to light the need for providers and public agencies to approach their clients from a place of empathy and compassion, this panel featured Susan Spicer, Clinic Supervisor at Tompkins County Mental Health, Tammy Baker, Outreach Coordinator at Family & Children's Services of Ithaca, Kit Kephart, Tompkins County Department of Social Services (DSS) Commissioner, and Deana Bodnar, Tompkins County DSS Deputy Commissioner. It was moderated by Dr. Ken Clarke, Director of Tompkins County Office of Human Rights.

Susan Spicer described the increased need for mental health services during the pandemic, stating that we all fall somewhere along a continuum of mental wellness; those in need prior to the pandemic are now more in need, and those who did not need services before may now find themselves reaching out. Services are primarily being conducted over the phone, or via video conference if desired. This changes the dynamic of the therapeutic session but is encouraging the clinicians to "be more creative about ways to engage with people."

Tammy Baker shared the continued efforts of the Outreach Coordinators, in partnership with REACH Medical, to provide continued services to the homeless population, citing a lack of access to technology, phones, and public spaces to stay during the day with access to restrooms as major challenges made worse by COVID-19.

The Department of Social Services also continues to remain fully operational, though many services are conducted remotely as much as possible. Mobile document uploads are now available, which will help to limit the amount of in-person interactions and shared handling of paperwork. The goal of DSS during this time has been to keep services going despite the challenges of COVID-19. "We are socially distanced, but we need to stay connected," stated DSS Commissioner Kit Kephart in closing.

All four panelists stressed their desire to continue to create dialog around how best to provide services and establish trust with populations that have experienced trauma through social service systems. They cited this as beginning with an emphasis on providing compassionate care, a focused understanding, and acknowledgement of suffering.

Deputy Commissioner Deana Bodnar described the Solution-Focused, Trauma Informed framework that DSS staff are trained in to foster empowerment and provide compassionate care, stating that while there are "regulations we have to attend to, within that we can do our best to remember what clients are up against," a framework even more necessary in times of extreme stress such as the pandemic.

Ongoing community needs that were prevalent prior to COVID-19 and still need addressing include housing and homelessness, the opioid crisis, rural outreach/connectivity, and supports for those reentering the community upon release from incarceration. With these challenges, more cross-collaboration between agencies is needed as a desirable outcome of COVID-19 adaptations.

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