“I am completely cut off from any kind of support,” said Gary Fuerstenberg, 68. “Nurses can’t see me. Psychological nurses can’t see me. Case managers can’t see me. ARMHS (Adult Rehabilitative Mental Health Service) workers can’t see me. I am alone.”
What touched off Fuerstenberg’s despair was a report that Birch Tree Center, a mental health provider in Duluth, had laid off its team of after-hours and weekend in-person crisis responders. KBJR-TV reported the news on Monday, and Fuerstenberg saw the station’s report Tuesday morning.
Fuerstenberg, who lives in the Firehouse Flats apartment complex on Fourth Street, is saddled with physical, mental and emotional disabilities, he said, with diagnoses that include schizophrenia. A medication he takes can cause him to “zone out,” sometimes for minutes but other times for days. If that happens, he’s in no condition to call for help, Fuerstenberg said. But the Birch Tree team would check on him periodically and get him help if he was in that condition.
Without them, he has lost his backstop.
“I could die,” Fuerstenberg said. “If I do, nobody’s going to know.”
Birch Tree Center is operated by Thrive Behavioral Network of St. Cloud, formerly known as Rule 36 Limited Partnerships of Duluth. Its director did not return a call for a comment Tuesday.
Thrive’s contract is with the Arrowhead Behavioral Health Initiative, which is coordinated by Ric Schaeffer. In a phone interview, he said his understanding was that the layoffs would not have occurred had it not been for the emergence of COVID-19.
“Around the region when I’ve talked to other folks … they’re reporting some sort of reduction in people actually wanting in-person (service),” said Schaeffer, who is also the director of the Arrowhead Health Alliance. “Just because of being asked to do social distancing.”
Breanna Greenly, among those who were laid off, said she got word of the decision via email Friday, the day before what would have been her third work anniversary with Birch Tree Center.
But the issue for her and the seven or nine other members of the crisis team is not economic, said Greenly, who is a licensed social worker.
“It’s a second job for all of us,” she said. “So it’s not the layoff that is bothering us. It’s genuine concern for our clients in the community. We have a lot of regulars who we know very well, and we’re able to de-escalate them.”
Fuerstenberg said he’s not necessarily a regular, because there are stretches of time when he’s OK. But he appreciates the occasional visits. When he was “zoned out,” they’d arranged to have him placed for a while at Birch Tree Center.
The latter continues to have residential service and a 24-hour crisis hotline in place, said Greenly, whose primary job as a social worker for the Duluth school district has changed but has not been eliminated.
Greenly and the others on her team would be on call after hours and on weekends, she said. Sometimes, they could handle calls over the phone, but other times they would need to travel to the place where a person was experiencing a mental health crisis.
“We went out into the community, to the hospitals, to the homeless shelters, to homes, to schools … and we would do assessments for people who are in mental health crisis, and then come up with a plan,” she said.
The workload varied, she said. Some nights, there would be two calls that could be handled over the phone. Others, there might be four or five in-person visits, back to back. They’d get many referrals from Duluth police, she added.
The week before the layoff, she and the other crisis team members had requested some changes in protocols to make their work safer in the face of COVID-19, Greenly said.
“We think that there are some ways we could adapt to it to be safe and function within some social distancing and some safety precautions,” she said. “Nothing really changed, and then the following week we were laid off.”
Concern about safety of crisis team members isn’t unique to Duluth, Schaeffer said.
“I can’t speak on behalf of the entire state,” he said. “But I know they’re not the only crisis team that’s trying to figure out how to do sort of an impossible job. There are limited resources right now.”
Although Fuerstenberg lives in a densely populated area, he doesn’t expect help from neighbors.
“I live in an apartment building, but everybody’s scared,” he said.
Fuerstenberg said he contacted the News Tribune because he knows many other people are in situations similar to his.
“We’re on our own,” he said.
The 24-hour crisis phone line at Birch Tree Center is 218-623-1800.
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