Sanford Health and UND are partnering to offer behavioral health support services to people struggling through the coronavirus pandemic.

The entities have collaborated to create the Behavioral Health Bridge, a series of online modules aimed at helping people dealing with common behavioral health conditions related to COVID-19 and promoting behavioral health treatment to address the current needs of people in the community.

The website and its associated modules are a free online service. The service is meant to offer scientific and clinically valid information – collected by the partnership team – to members of the community, giving them tips and resources for managing behavioral health concerns during the pandemic.

“We are excited to get this partnership with UND online and offer much needed behavioral health support to those who either don’t have proper access or are uncomfortable asking for help,” Dr. Stephen Wonderlich, vice president of research at Sanford Health in Fargo.

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The project got started after a Sunday afternoon visit between UND’s Dr. Andrew McLean and Wonderlich in March when the pandemic was first hitting the United States. They knew there would likely be mental health implications of the pandemic. The two began talking more and more about the topic and slowly more people became a part of the discussion.

“We just wanted to make it pandemic relevant, we wanted to make it appropriate for a rural audience and we wanted to make it something that all of North Dakota could tap into and, hopefully, find useful,” Wonderlich told the Herald.

The online COVID-19 behavioral health modules include:

  • Behavioral Health: Impact of COVID-1

  • Stress and Coping: Coping with Stress, Worry, Grief, and Loss

  • Caring: Self-care and Caring for Loved Ones

  • Support and Treatment: Considerations, Need, and Behavioral Health Resources

  • Healthcare Providers: COVID-19 and Behavioral Health

“There is a great deal of need for mental health resources, information and treatment. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of ‘noise’ out there from various sources, and the Behavioral Health Bridge is one way to bring current and reliable information to the public and providers, including those in our rural communities,” said Andrew McLean, chair of the psychiatry and behavioral science department at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Wonderlich and McLean say they hope this is the first step in the collaboration and that the partnership could grow even beyond the pandemic.

New resources and modules will be added as the partnership continues to grow.

The partnership aims to reach rural areas, which often lack resources for mental health.

“I think that social connectedness is a significant importance in mitigating some of these behavioral health concerns,” McLean said. “We just don't have the providers (in some areas) and so we've seen this past year how virtual care has expanded significantly.”

McLean said reducing people’s mental and behavioral health concerns can also help their physical health as well.

“Chronic stress is not good for the brain or good for the body,” he said. “The potential is there to have benefits across many different areas.”

Thomasine Heitkamp, who leads UND’s Grand Challenges goal of helping rural communities through their unique health and social problems, worked with Dr. Shawnda Schroeder at the Center for Rural Health to launch the project.

“We are building partnerships, expanding workforce capacity and expanding access to behavioral health care at all levels,” she said. “That is absolutely critical to our mission.”

Though the site is a collaboration between UND and Sanford Health, anyone can use the modules no matter what their health care provider might be, McLean said.

“You don’t have to be a Sanford patient, it’s for the general population,” he said.

For more about the Behavioral Health Bridge, go to www.behavioralhealthbridge.com.