Many things have surprised John Meister, the executive director of Thrive Counseling Center, during this pandemic year. But whether he is talking about the clients served at Thrive, the professional staff there or the wide community which benefits from its services, he keeps coming back to resilience.

“The resilience of our clients has just amazed,” he says. Their ability to adapt quickly to the loss of in person therapy sessions has surprised everyone. Back in March when COVID first became real, Meister said a March 13 staff meeting reflected the fears and the clear sense of the unknown everyone was feeling. By March 16 all face-to-face sessions were cancelled and the agency hustled to move to telephone sessions. Patient sessions dropped sharply in March. But to the surprise of all, by April there was a large rebound and the percentage of “kept appointments” actually rose as homebound clients called in to their therapists. There were no issues finding transportation and the other logistics that could keep appointments from being dropped.

Meister and his team learned a lot in the first weeks about how to do phone therapy an exhausting 5 to 8 hours a day. They found that it was more successful converting a client who had started with in-person sessions into a worthwhile phone therapy sessions. Launching a new client only virtually has been more problematic.

“There is an element of trust between a client and their therapist. There are subtle cues that you don’t get over the phone,” he says based on the observations of his staff. “But telephone therapy is better than no therapy.”

Meister spends a lot of hours trying to figure out the future of how insurance companies and the government agencies which subsidize mental health treatment will pay for this care once the pandemic is eventually over. 

“A hybrid model – in person and virtual – will become the new normal,” he says. What exactly it looks like it is too soon to tell.

Meister said that back in March he thought COVID’s impact would blow a hole in Thrive’s tight budget of between $300,000 and $500,000. How to begin to replace the $200,000 raised in its annual gala seemed unfathomable. Now he says, with the work of his board, Thrive is “bowled over by the response from the community.” Their virtual fundraisers cleared more than $200,000 and Meister said they discovered “the community really values what we do.” 

That has been a gratifying realization for Meister and other nonprofit leaders interviewed for this project. 

Now as the year closes, Meister has decided to close the agency down between Christmas and New Year’s so the staff can get an actual break. “Of course, no one can travel. But it gives us time to take stock to spend time on things which bring us joy.”

And then, he says, it will back to at least six more months of therapy by phone.

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