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For people in crisis, access to a safe place is critical

Nov 14th, 2023

Content warning: This post discusses mental illness and substance use. Please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP, or 911 if you need immediate support.

Just like clockwork, Kenny* visits the Genoa Healthcare pharmacy every Friday to pick up his medication for the following week.

The pharmacy team has built a relationship with Kenny out of this routine. Over time, they’ve gotten to know him by name – he knows them all by name, too – and connected with him over his car and love of music.  

So, when Kenny stopped by the counter seeming unlike himself one recent Friday, Genoa pharmacist Alicia immediately knew something was wrong.

“I knew something was off, so I asked if he was okay,” said Alicia. Kenny asked if someone was behind him, and when Alicia told him no, he collapsed in on himself. He said he was being followed and had been told to use opioids over the last few days. Shaking, Kenny asked Alicia’s technician to take his car keys and admitted he couldn’t remember how he got to the pharmacy.

Genoa has provided pharmacy care to the behavioral health community for over 20 years. Alicia’s pharmacy, like most of the organization’s other pharmacies, is located directly within the mental health clinic where its consumers receive their care. This unique setting enables its team members to meet consumers where they are, so it’s easier for them to get – and stay on – their medication. It also helps them build relationships with clinic staff and providers so they can work to improve outcomes as one cohesive care team.

Alicia and her team got to work, first by alerting their clinic partner about the situation and then by helping Kenny get comfortable. They took a seat with him in the lobby and gave him some water while the clinic’s crisis team called an ambulance and got ahold of his psychiatrist, who was working remotely that day.

“Kenny would only respond to my team at first, so we served as the intermediary between him, the clinic staff and the paramedics,” said Alicia. “He recognized my voice, and I could tell he was there when I put my hand on his shoulder.”

Genoa pharmacists are required to complete specialized training in behavioral health, including Mental Health First Aid. The course prepares those who take it to identify and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders so they can provide initial support to someone who may be experiencing a crisis.

Alicia credits the Mental Health First Aid training for giving her the confidence to help Kenny. “The course empowered me to ask him the hard questions – about his opioid use and hallucinations – that might have felt out of my scope of practice previously,” she said. “It helped me connect with him in that moment so I could get answers for the paramedics and clinic staff.”

After some time, Kenny agreed to talk to his psychiatrist over the phone, who later told Alicia that he came to her pharmacy that day in autopilot mode because he felt safe with the team and seeing them was a part of his typical Friday routine.

Directly after being discharged from the hospital, Kenny stopped by the pharmacy – this time on a Tuesday instead. “He asked to talk to each of us by name and thanked us for what we did,” said Alicia. “He said he was comforted knowing we were there.”

For Alicia, the situation reaffirmed why she and her team do what they do. “For someone to feel that we were the people he needed in that moment of crisis – I was really proud of our team for that.”

*The consumer’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.

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