Q&A with Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester’s Rik Cornell

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‘We’ve had to find a better way to work with people’ since the pandemic began, says Rik Cornell of the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester. (Photo by Allegra Boverman)

Rik Cornell has had a 47-year career at the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester, 15 of them spent as director of Bedford Counseling, an outpatient counseling service for both children and adults. He’s also worked in emergency services, volunteer coordination and as a child therapist. He remains a licensed clinician who sees patients.

Cornell’s been waging a two-front war for many years. The first is challenging the public perception of mental illness, thus reducing the stigma on those who seek treatment. The second is fighting for enough funding so that the Mental Health Center can effectively help people requesting services. Two traits readily apparent in an interview with Cornell are enthusiasm and optimism.

The center serves about 11,000 people per year with 400 clinicians and support staff. The Center’s Mobile Crisis Response Team alone assisted 600 people during the first two months of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The state’s ambitious 10-Year Mental Health Plan, to be implemented through the Department of Health and Human Services, seeks in large part to educate and provide early screening, particularly for children. Rep. Patricia Cornell, D-Manchester, Cornell’s wife, was one of the sponsors of House Bill 131, which in 2019 established a commission on mental health education and behavioral health and wellness programs.

Q. What is the most challenging part of your work today?

A. I’m concerned about people with pre-existing challenges, but for all of us stress is a normal psychological reaction to current events. It’s rough for everyone.

The mental health system had problems before this crisis. I hate to say it, but we benefited from the opioid crisis in that it was a problem that affected everyone. Consequently, organizations had to work together. The pandemic has had the same effect. We’ve had to find a better way to work with people.

Q. Are there pluses to using remote technology?

A. Every case is different. Is it problematic? Yes, but there can be problems meeting face to face. For some autistic children, being in the office is a lot of stimulation. Patience can wear thin when they have to answer the same questions again for different staff and clinicians.

The number of missed appointments has gone way down. We can pick up the phone and easily reach people because they’re at home much of the time.

Hospitals were already using telehealth. Remote technology has been an absolute plus. I can’t say enough about how our staff has readily and effectively embraced the technology.

Q. For someone struggling, how can social distancing not become social isolation?

A. Everyone needs social interaction. We’ve provided smartphones to many patients who didn’t have them as part of our community outreach. Our collaboration within the Center and with other agencies to coordinate services has been phenomenal.

Q. What are the warning signs that a person might need mental health evaluation?

A. The early things to look for are: 1. Do the symptoms affect daily living? 2. Do they affect the ability to concentrate? 3. Are they causing withdrawing from people? 4. Do they interfere with employment?

It’s often not as clear with children but erratic behavior, sadness and withdrawal are indicators.

Part of what makes the myth of mental illness is that it’s something scary — scary to people who don’t understand it. Be that as it may, mental illness is very much part of the medical field. Evidence-based research tells us it is all about the body’s chemistry and the environmental interactions that take place in each and every one of us.

Q. How can the community best support those with severe and persistent mental illness?

A. Businesses have stepped up, and their help is invaluable. Samples Against Stigma, a major annual fundraiser offering desserts, cheeses and craft beers among other things, had to be canceled. Yet all 20 sponsoring businesses made the same financial contributions they did a year ago. That’s fantastic!

The center’s Mobile Response Team (800-688-3544) is available to anyone, and we’ve placed advertising stickers with the phone number on the cover of both the Manchester Union Leader and Hippo. We really want to get the word out. We continue to provide crisis intervention training to Manchester police and fire on how to respond to someone in a mental health crisis. That partnership has been very, very successful. We have great relationships with both CMC and Elliot Hospital.

Q. What do you do to de-stress?

A. My wife Patty and I love to travel. It kills me right now that we can’t. Some favorite places are Paris, Italy, Mexico and the Amazon. We went to the Galapagos Islands, and it was incredible to see a turtle larger than me. The world is a whole lot bigger than we think. Travel makes you open your mind. I love the diversity of people and cultures, and it’s great that we have that in Manchester too.

Categories: Q&A