People forced to stay home during the months-long grip of COVID-19 are facing a second health challenge as anxiety, depression and stress take their toll.

A Bloomington counseling center which serves those with little or no health insurance has expanded its services to include children and minority residents – two groups that often have difficulties finding mental health services.

INtegRIty Counseling has seen its list of active clients increase from 85 before the pandemic hit in March, to more 170 in September.  Like most health care providers, INtegRIty was forced to change its plans for 2020 after the spread of COVID-19 forced the center to close its door to in-person visits.

The goal of expanding to 3,000 appointments in 2020 and reaching out to black and Hispanic residents seemed derailed by the pandemic, according to the center’s founder Luella Mahannah.

The volunteer counselors who staff INtegRIty continued to meet with clients through a new telehealth program. But in June after an electronic records program was put in place, the center opened its doors to those who wanted to meet in person.

“We are still doing telehealth visits but many clients and counselors prefer to meet in person. For some people, it’s more appropriate for them to come in,” said Mahannah, who manages the center with support from her husband, Don.

Despite the limitations of the pandemic, the ambitious goal to expand services moved forward.

The center’s base of 30 volunteers now includes a Spanish-speaking counselor, a translator and four bi-lingual helpers who will work as translators and front desk support.

Cultural sensitivity training will help volunteers understand the needs of minority clients, said Don Mahannah.  A higher number of minority clients have sought help in recent weeks, he said.

“We’re seeing people who went on thinking they would be ok.  What we’ve seen across the country is that people’s worlds are getting smaller and they often have relationship problems. The phones started ringing in June and by July, it just exploded,” said Don.

For Luella, the ability to hire a part-time counselor to work with children, is a major accomplishment as the center marks its sixth anniversary.  Stephanie Hueramo also has a private practice, Trust Without Borders Counseling.

Children with unmet mental health needs have “a double access problem,” said Don.

“There aren’t resources available and they couldn’t afford them if they were available,” he said.

The shortage of counseling and residential mental health care for youth was cited in the McLean County Board’s Mental Health Action Plan, released in 2015.  The lack of affordable, accessible care for children was one of four priorities outlined in the county plan.

Having a licensed counselor for youth has made a difference for families waiting for help, said Don.

“We’ve had calls from parents and grandparents the last few weeks saying they’ve been on waiting lists since March to get services for their children.  We can get them in the next week,” he said.

A parent support group, “How do we teach our kids” is led by parent educator Christie Velella. The group meets through secure video conferencing to help parents with a variety of issues from behavioral issues to the return to school this year.

INtegRIty is seeking financial support from the community to continue the expansion of its services.

The center “is working to raise an additional $25,000 in ongoing support in 2020 to support the expansion,” said Luella.

More information on INtegrITy Counseling is available at the center’s website