A grassroots mental health strategy

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Caroline Easton and her team work to address Rochester’s need for mental health and addiction counselors.
(Photo: Gabrielle Plucknette-DeVito/RIT)

Since she arrived at Rochester Institute of Technology roughly a decade ago, Caroline Easton has been working to stem a shortage.

Easton, director of RIT’s priority behavioral health and clinical psychology program, who moved to Rochester from Connecticut, found that the area had a dearth of mental health and addiction counselors. 

“It was really eye opening for me,” says Easton, a professor in RIT’s biomedical sciences program. “It seemed like (at) every street corner in Connecticut, we had psychologists and psychiatrists and mental health professionals everywhere. … It just was hard to find people and colleagues in this region. Especially providing care to the underserved, free or affordable care to the underserved.”

Easton launched a grassroots approach to build the ranks of these professionals, working with the American Psychological Association to recruit interns. With a small grant of $20,000 from the APA, Easton collaborated with Rochester Regional Health, Hillside Children’s Home and Coordinated Care Services Inc.

“There’s like a win-win, where we try to recruit the best of the best interns from across the United States to this region to do a one-year clinical rotation here in this community at one of these sites or various sites,” Easton says.

The accredited program, which started in 2016, offers clinical training for doctorate-level psychology interns, much like medical residents, and encourages them to establish their careers in Rochester. Interns need the yearlong residency to become licensed psychologists. The program has grown from four interns to 18, attracted $7 million in funds, and most recently, a $100,000 grant from the Buffalo-based Patrick P. Lee Foundation to create a new clinical psychology postdoctoral fellowship. 

“That helps us provide free care to this community,” Easton says. “The interns come with a lot of evidence-based tools that they’ve learned at their graduate programs, and then they come here; (it’s) what they’ve learned in their textbooks and what they’re learning now in the real world, with all of us supervising them doing good care, quality care with the most underserved.”

The Lee Foundation fellowship, also a yearlong appointment, will integrate behavioral health treatment into primary care services for patients of Rochester Regional Health Family Medicine, officials say. Integrative care typically can result in timely intervention. The postdoctoral fellow will gain clinical training in behavioral health, addiction therapy, and digital tools developed at RIT, such as Avatar Assisted Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, to reinforce coping skills and improve treatment outcomes.

A postdoc is essential to the internship program—to help with supervision as licensed, practicing psychologists.

“There’s not enough of us,” Easton says. “So, the only way we can get more of us is the intern stays in this community and they become a postdoc. And then gradually, we hire them to be part of our (program) as a licensed, practicing psychologist to oversee other interns. It’s like we’re seeding them in this community or trying to get them to stay and seed them to become licensed psychologists in this community to provide care.”

The fellow will also support the RIT Priority Behavioral Health Clinic, which offers free mental health and substance use treatment to underserved populations. The training clinic is supervised by licensed mental health professionals.  

Access to mental health has been a growing problem for the Rochester community—especially among underserved populations. Easton’s team spends time at the House of Mercy to ensure the homeless continue to receive therapy. When Monroe County shut down last year, during the first wave of COVID-19, therapists were ready to use to telehealth protocols to address drug cravings and offer emotional support. 

The urgent need for mental health help hasn’t gone away. Neither has the drug overdose challenge. The number of drug overdoses keep climbing—every other day, an individual in Monroe County dies from an opioid overdose, the county health department estimates. 

The community is working to address the need for more mental health workers and access to care, Easton says. She says programs like hers bring “more boots to the ground in terms of soldiers out there doing the clinical work.”

“We talk to Rochester Regional, our other clinical partners and say, ‘this is an opportunity to essentially cherry pick or retain that clinical leader at your site, and they can still continue to give care to this community,’” Easton adds. 

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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