In April, Governor Cuomo tweeted a list of volunteer opportunities, as the pandemic rocked New York City. One was NYC COVID Care Network, a nonprofit organization that offers healthcare workers and uninsured individuals in New York City free mental health resources. Catalina Ortuzar, a Chilean immigrant and clinical psychologist, who moved to the United States in 2019, saw the tweet and decided to sign up.
“A year ago I immigrated from Chile, but it’s been hard to practice in the United States due to licensing issues, so when the volunteer opportunity came up with NYC COVID Care Network, I was like, wow, this is it,” said Ortuzar, who lives in Manhattan and works as the coordinator for the network’s community-based partnerships.
NYC COVID Care Network was formed by mental health workers, spiritual care providers, psychiatrists and therapists in March, to initially address mental health issues some frontline and essential workers were facing early in the pandemic. Since April, the organization has expanded its outreach to include uninsured New Yorkers, as well as members of communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The organization predominately offers one-on-one support, in addition to public workshops, group therapy and bereavement sessions, along with community-based services.
Nicole Andreoli, a New York City-based psychologist, joined NYC COVID Care Network within the first few weeks of its inception and has watched the group evolve.
“We have gone through a transformation internally since the spring,” said Andreoli, who said the network advertised on social media for a range of mental health providers and spiritual practitioners from various backgrounds to participate.
Those initial weeks brought the network an influx of 3,000 volunteers, but the number of people seeking help was low.
“The feedback we heard from frontline workers is that they’re reluctant to ask for mental health help, because they fear push back from coworkers and upper management, penalizing them or viewing them negatively. That’s been a huge obstacle to care,” said Andreoli.
In the summer, the team restructured and expanded their services to include therapy for individuals who are not insured or who have trouble seeking out mental health resources. They also reached out to communities that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, such as Hispanics.
“A lot of people, we’re just in survival mode,” said Andreoli, about her clients who took months to confront their anxiety, sadness and fear over the pandemic, she said. “So in August, we expanded to people who lost family members and to the uninsured,” said Andreoli, adding that those who don’t have great access to mental health care can also get help.
The network mostly provides one-on-one support, offering individuals 10 free, one-hour sessions with a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. Individuals sign up on the website, filling out a form and specifying why they are seeking help, and which group they fall in—be it frontline worker, uninsured individual or essential worker, and what kind of volunteer they’d be most interested in speaking with—therapist, social worker, healing arts expert, life coach or spiritual counselor. A mental health practitioner responds within 24 hours.
Most NYC COVID Care Network volunteers have full-time jobs. Andreoli runs her own private practice from home, in addition to giving between 10-15 hours a week to the network just like the other volunteers.
Ortuzar works in public policy for the National Center for Children in Poverty, when she’s not volunteering for the network, organizing community-based partnerships that provide stress reduction workshops, group activities and other services. She’s also led some of the workshops for one of the partner organizations, Make the Road, which provides educational, health and legal services to predominantly Latino immigrants, who have a hard time finding mental health resources in Spanish, said Ortuzar.
“I am Latina, so I felt a sense of responsibility to provide services to Latin communities,” she said. “It has been very heartbreaking to hear their stories. Most and all of them got sick with Covid, and had to care for their loved ones too. In Latin cultures there is a stigma on mental health,” said Ortuzar, adding that sessions in Spanish have made it easier to create a sense of community.
Brooklyn resident Loey Bromberg is a volunteer for NYC COVID Cares and a doctoral student in clinical psychology.
“In my own words, there would be some cursing to describe the world we’re in right now,” said Bromberg. “People need to feel heard and seen and held right now. Oftentimes people who are in crisis don’t know how to find what they need to feel those kinds of ways.”
Bromberg said it’s hard to read the news without having PTSD symptoms, including reports on the rising coronavirus positivity rates that range between 3% and 8% across different regions in the five boroughs, according to the New York City Department of Health. On December 9, more than 1,500 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19. The city saw its highest number of hospitalizations, 12,184 people on April 12.
“It’s really difficult to find anything heartening about life right now,” Bromberg said. “In every single step of working within this network—within my time with the outreach team to the organizing team—I’ve finally allowed myself to see the goodness in humanity.”
To date, NYC COVID Care Network has served over 250 individuals, and about 70% of those individuals have been uninsured, according to Andreoli.
“As a society we’re conditioned to not like change,” she said. “There’s a lot of loss and grief that comes along with pandemic conditions. It’s important to go into these situations with coping mechanisms to take care of yourself.”
NYC COVID Care Network continues to post advertisements in Facebook groups for unemployed individuals in New York, in hopes that more people sign-up for help, said Ortuzar.
“I would love for this network to operate even after Covid,” said Ortuzar. “Covid revealed how difficult mental health access is in a time that it is especially needed. Mental health is as important as physical health, and resources will continue to be needed even after Covid.”