With the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the nation, High Plains Mental Health Center continues to serve 20 counties in northwest Kansas. High Plains has offices in Hays and four other cities in the area. The only difference is, most of its services are now online through telehealth connections.

Executive Director Walt Hill said High Plains had already set up some video technology when the pandemic hit and had purchased 50 iPads for staff to use. By working with the state, licensing requirements allowed telehealth appointments. Hill said High Plains can still provide assistance for the 100,000 people in its service area.

"It’s been a matter of getting the word out that we’re still available," Hill said. "We want to make sure people know we’re still available, reach out to us for help."

In 2019, High Plains had 6,200 clients, about six percent of the population in its service area. Hill said the number of clients at High Plains has decreased during the pandemic, with people concentrating on other things rather than how they are feeling. He expects the number of people seeking help will increase.

"We have seen an increase in crisis contacts since the COVID orders came down," Hill said.

Another factor could be that with people out of work they might be reluctant to seek assistance.

"We want to make sure people understand we’re going to serve people regardless of their ability to pay," Hill said. "We work with people on their bill; the important thing is that they get problems taken care of."

Typical symptoms of anxiety and stress include changes in sleeping behavior, changes in eating patterns, change in alcohol consumption, irritability, and lack of enjoyment of activities. Coping strategies include getting enough sleep, getting outside, staying connected with family and friends through technology, and limiting the amount of news coverage and use of social media.

High Plains has a grant project called "7 Cups" for access to online wellness tools. The High Plains website has a link where people can find 30 assistance tools for everything from dealing with sleep and anxiety issues to finances. Also available are private one-on-one messaging with trained listeners that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Group chats are another option.

"Anybody in our 20 counties can get online and access that for free," High Plains marketing coordinator Kaley Conner said.

There is a cost for client services, and Hill has a $10 million budget to oversee. About $750,000 of that comes from the 20 counties in the service area. But businesses have been shut down, and agriculture and oil are facing revenue issues.

"This has had an impact on all businesses," Hill said. "We’re OK at this point."

Future funding is something Hill considers.

"It keeps me occupied, thinking about that," he said.

With the state in Phase 1 in its plan to re-open, High Plains is making plans to gradually resume in-person services for clients. Currently, most client services are still through use of technology, whether online or by phone. However it is done, High Plains is committed to assisting those in need.

"It has been challenging, but we have a great team here," Hill said. "We have really come together."