Protecting individuals with SMI from COVID-19: Best practices for community mental health agencies and clinics

April 28, 2020

Two doctors hold a head in profile made of puzzle pieces, protecting an individual with an SMI from COVID-19For individuals with a serious mental illness (SMI)—a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder that interferes with or limits major life activities—the COVID-19 pandemic may present a particular threat. Community mental health agencies and clinics need to be prepared to protect their clients with SMIs from COVID-19 by understanding and following best practices for this unique situation.

To slow the spread of infection among this population, behavioral health providers and community-based health centers, including federally-qualified health centers, may want to communicate with their clients, as well as their clients’ caregivers, about social distancing and prevention practices. In addition, they may hope to work with clients to mitigate the negative impact of social isolation.

In this brief, requested by a Michigan-based community mental health agency, we offer guidance on best practices for protecting those with SMIs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our first recommendation is to communicate COVID-19 safety protocols with client-facing materials adapted the the needs of a particular audience. We share resources adapted for groups with different mental health challenges, including caregivers of individuals with schizophrenia, clients who live in group homes, and individuals with anxiety and depression.

Our second recommendation is to make use of telehealth to continue treatment and offer ongoing support. We point towards several organizations that have shared information on telehealth best practices, some specifically adapted to protecting the SMI population from COVID-19. We also share crisis text lines and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services “warmline”.

Finally, we recommend emphasizing wellness activities that help clients manage their illnesses amid COVID-19 stressors and keeping in mind that clients may need social supports. We share many useful tips, guides, and resources to accomplish this safely while social distancing is required. This includes identifying free meditation apps, online programs at gyms, and guides helping with meal planning.