Free mental health resources are now available to all Delaware, Dubuque and Jones county residents seeking extra support or assistance amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mental Health/Disability Services of the East Central Region officials have begun offering five free mental health sessions to residents of their service area.

“I think that it’s OK for people to realize that support that they need for their overall wellbeing … ebbs and flows in a person’s life and because of the pandemic, people are experiencing some additional stress, but there is help for them,” said Mae Hingtgen, CEO of the East Central Region.

The program offers three mental wellness coaching sessions and two counseling sessions to anyone within the region’s nine-county service area, which includes Delaware, Dubuque and Jones counties. Hillcrest Family Services in Dubuque and Abbe Mental Health Center in Cedar Rapids will offer the services until June 30, Hingtgen said.

The East Central Region is covering the cost of the sessions with about $500,000 in funds from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Services are available in-person, by phone or via telehealth, Hingtgen said.

“You just need to prove you have residency in one of our nine counties,” she said. “You don’t have to let your employer know. (There is) no out-of-pocket costs for the first five classes.”

East Central Region officials started a smaller-scale version of the program last August by offering free mental health sessions to local educators. They soon realized others might need the same services and expanded the offering to include essential workers.

In January, services were expanded to anyone in the region’s service area, said Carrie Merrick, vice president of behavioral health at Hillcrest.

“There were CARES Act dollars left over last year, and Mae (Hingtgen) wants to be intentional,” Merrick said. “It just keeps getting bigger, and we want people to know about the support available.”

Providers saw a great response from teachers who both asked about and completed the sessions, but they did not see many essential workers inquire about the resources, Merrick said.

“We didn’t have as much interest as we had hoped,” she said. “These essential workers were just so busy in their day-to-day lives.”

Merrick said she hopes to see more interest in the program now that it is open to the general population.

“The past year under this pandemic has been incredibly daunting,” she said. “I don’t think anyone thought there was any way we would be dealing with this. We are really trying to reduce the stigma of brain health and mental health. Most people (who go to therapy) don’t regret going.”

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