Capital Region

Outlook 2021: Northern Rivers official works to make mental health services more accessible, acceptable

Jennifer Eslick
Jennifer Eslick

Published Feb. 25, 2021 in Outlook

In college, Jennifer Eslick, executive program director of Crisis Services at Northern Rivers Family of Services, thought she’d pursue a career in family law. But she soon discovered she didn’t find working for attorneys on the legal side of issues very satisfying.

“The laws are the laws, and you aren’t able to capture the needs of individuals and help them in everyday life,” Eslick said.

She decided instead to earn a master’s degree in social work at the University at Albany and work directly with people who needed help.

Eslick gathered a range of experience in her field. She worked at Vanderheyden Hall as a social worker in its residential program. She also worked in school settings and prevention settings in the realm of behavioral health and substance abuse. Another job was in the inpatient psychiatric unit at Albany Medical Center for a decade.

But in 2018, after 10 years in the hospital setting, her focus shifted dramatically to a job where she helps prevent people with mental health crises from ending up in the hospital at all.

“There are so many opportunities … to support individuals out in the community, in their own settings, as opposed to having to come to the emergency room or go through the hospital system,” Eslick said.

Eslick found her niche in crisis services, calling the position “the height of her career.” But it is difficult for her to pinpoint why she is so drawn to the field and driven to provide crisis services.

“There really is no rhyme or reason why I chose this,” she said. “It has just always been something that I’ve always been very interested in. The long and short of it is that it’s my passion. It makes me happy. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I absolutely love crisis work.”

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Open to all

The Mobile Crises Services unit she oversees has a team of licensed supervisors and clinicians, family advocates, peer support specialists and case managers. They staff a 24-hour crisis phone line, responding to roughly 10 to 20 calls a day. When a crisis hits that requires face-to-face interaction, pairs respond to evaluate and resolve the situation, a service that is free to those who use it.

Funding comes from the counties the program serves: Schenectady, Saratoga, Albany (children and adolescents only), Warren, Washington and Rensselaer. The goal is to provide the help that individuals and families need while avoiding a visit to the emergency room or a hospital stay. In the case of youth ages 5 to 17, Northern Rivers offers a short-term overnight program in a therapeutic setting to address any issues that require 24/7 monitored.

Eslick views her department’s role in serving people as being equally important as other emergency services such as police, fire department or paramedics. “We are the emergency services of behavioral health,” she said.

To that end, Eslick has been working diligently on developing relationships with law enforcement so that they call the Mobile Crisis Services team first when there is a mental behavioral health situation. It’s working. Eslick always has her cellphone on.

“With crisis care, you can’t make it happen in a 9-to-5,” Eslic said. “If I truly believe in what I do, then I should make myself accessible when there’s a crisis.”

Eugene White, marketing and public relations manager for Northern Rivers, recalled an instance when police reached out to Eslick before she officially went on duty to get help for a person rather than having that individual end up in the hospital. That those officers felt comfortable enough to reach out to her before her department was officially “open” for the day was a standout moment for Eslick, as it spoke to the trusting relationship she had forged with law enforcement.

“It’s really about going above and beyond, and not just working my 7-to-5 — working with individuals in crisis at any time, even if it’s just to provide feedback and assistance for where they can turn to,” Eslick said.

In addition to fostering relationships with law enforcement and first responders, Eslick has been collaborating with county officials, dispatch services and law enforcement to integrate the Mobile Crisis Services into the 911 dispatch system. So far, that has begun in Schenectady County and she would like to see the same type of integration in the other five counties Northern Rivers serves.

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“Our partnership allows dispatchers to connect emergency callers, who meet specific criteria, directly to a counselor from Jennifer’s team instead of sending a police response,” said Kevin Spawn, director of the Schenectady County Unified Communications Center, noting that Eslick is also working on having her team respond directly to incidents requiring a counselor. “These new resources can improve outcomes for individuals who are emotionally disturbed by linking them to professionals who are trained to help them.”

Spreading the word

One of Eslick’s biggest challenges is simply creating awareness of what her team offers, not only with law enforcement and first responders but with health care providers, parents, guardians and any other adults who could benefit from the county-funded free services that her team provides.

“It’s really a focus of mine to get our services out there,” Eslick said. “Anybody can actually call us.”

She is also working to reduce the stigma about mental health.

“I want to make people aware that it’s OK to call for help, even if you’re an ER doctor, teacher, policeman. … We all have different stressors in our lives and we could always use help at one time or another,” she said.

At a glance

Who: Jennifer Eslick, LCSW-R, is executive program director of Crisis Services for the Northern Rivers Family of Services.

What: If you are in crisis or know someone who is, there is help available by calling the Mobile Crisis Services at 518-292-5499. These services are free to those who use them in Albany, Rensselaer, Schenectady, Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties.

Special emphasis: High on Eslick’s list of important issues are suicide prevention and suicide awareness. “In all of the years of my social work career, I’ve seen a lot of drama and a lot of people struggle,” she said. Some even get to the point of considering taking their own lives. “Trying to find ways to support people who get that down and low is important, because nobody should ever feel that way,” she said.

In her down time: “I’m a Red Sox fan!” Eslick said. “My son and I love to go to baseball games.” She also loves watching her son play baseball. Even though her cellphone is always on, Eslick said, she does manage to set some boundaries.

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

Categories: -News-, Business, Outlook 2021, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

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