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Disruption creates new norms at Connecticut Mental Health Center

March 31, 2020
by Markeshia Ricks

Michael J. Sernyak, MD has likened the Connecticut Mental Health Center’s response to the burgeoning global COVID-19 pandemic to putting out a fast-moving house fire while simultaneously thinking about rebuilding the house.

It’s not hard to see what Dr. Sernyak, the CEO of CMHC and Deputy Chair for Clinical Affairs and Program Development in the Yale Department of Psychiatry, means.

CMHC is still providing critical clinical services for people in recovery from serious mental illness and/or substance use. A longstanding partnership between the State of Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and Yale, CMHC cares for the most vulnerable in our community while conducting cutting-edge research, training, and education across multiple disciplines.

Right now, though, research has been ordered to a virtual standstill while the clinical mission takes front and center. Dr. Sernyak and his team are in the early stages of developing CMHC’s acute response to the pandemic that is growing in Connecticut and across the United States. They have to think many steps ahead of a disease that has been deadly for some health care workers around the globe.

In the last few weeks, CMHC has pivoted from its normal full staff routines to figuring out how to provide essential services with many staff members working from home.

“Our strategic goal from the beginning was to maintain clinical services, so everything is being oriented in that direction,” Sernyak said.

That means developing a new staffing model that maintains CMHC’s inpatient unit along with a capacity to see patients on an urgent basis, including in-office visits and through its mobile crisis team, which responds to calls from the community. All while understanding that CMHC must also have a dynamic COVID-19 response.

“We’re working on trying to get down to the minimum safe staffing levels as quickly as possible, so our staff can be at home teleworking, minimizing the risk of their exposure at work,” Sernyak explained.

This is made more difficult—like a quick-moving fire—because of what is unknown about COVID-19 and the ongoing problems with getting people tested. But what is known, Sernyak said, is that to get through the pandemic and beyond, CMHC must maintain the wellness of its staff.

“We are experiencing deep changes,” he said. “Changes we’ve never seen before in the kinds of clinical programs we offer.”

CMHC staff members, like many mental health providers across the country, are in the early stages of discovering what it looks like to maintain high levels of clinical programming in formats that are very different from what they have ever used before. “There are going to be a lot of dynamic challenges,” Sernyak noted. “We will learn as we go.”

Sernyak said that the work of CMHC clinicians is already very difficult under ordinary circumstances. Right now, it’s even more so, as “we find ourselves in highly unusual times.” For the veterans at CMHC, many of whom have been in the field for over 30 years, he added, “This is the most trying time in our professional careers.”

“The care that people are providing under these unbelievably difficult circumstances is still extraordinary,” Sernyak said. “It is with a great sense of gratitude that I say that the people of New Haven are still receiving world-class mental health care in the midst of this crisis.”

Before signing off to continue leading his team through the COVID-19 pandemic, he added, “We’re going to do our level best to maintain that level of excellence, despite everything that’s going on in the world. And that’s a testament to the people who work here.”

Submitted by Lucile Bruce on March 30, 2020