Mental health services in Tompkins County have been stretched to the limit for years. Demand for crisis support at local mental health clinics, as well as calls to Ithaca’s crisis hotline, spiked after the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted normal life in 2020. The number of people seeking non-crisis counseling in the county has also increased steadily since then.
MindWell Center Co-Founders Sarah Markowitz and Aaron Rakow
Into this breach last October stepped a new service provider promising cutting-edge approaches to mental health care: Mindwell Center LLP, located in the South Hill Business Campus.
MindWell is the brainchild of Aaron Rakow, a clinical psychiatry professor at Georgetown University who returned to his native Ithaca with a mission to upgrade the availability of services and standard of care in rural upstate New York. In short order, Rakow and co-founder Sarah Markowitz have hired 25 therapists and are adding another one-to-two a month; they plan to open a second clinic with 10 clinicians in September in Albany. MindWell is currently supporting 350 patients and counting.
“Across our society, we have more demand for mental health services than we have providers able to support that demand,” Rakow said. “In particular, within a category of the mental health field that we refer to as evidence-based care, or psychological intervention that is based on science, to be as effective as possible in treating a host of mental health challenges amongst individuals, there are even fewer practitioners that practice in that space. My hope is that through opening MindWell Center we will be able to address some of those needs.”
The Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce honored MindWell at its 2021 Annual Meeting and Celebration on May 20 with its Distinguished Business of the Year Award. Announcing the award, the Chamber said: “In response to a specific and substantial community need—access to effective, quality mental health care, and removing stigma regarding mental health concerns—MindWell founders Aaron Rakow and Sarah Markowitz have introduced a new model of treatment to our community and expanded their staff and services considerably in a short period of time.”
MindWell strives to provide the highest quality evidence-based mental health care to children, families, and adults for a spectrum of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, sleep disorders, substance use disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Besides supporting individual patients, MindWell is ramping up population-level initiatives—for example, it offers contracted services for companies where clinicians implement programs fostering healthy workplaces through leadership training, wellness seminars, stress reduction classes, support groups, and individualized care for employees. MindWell is offering similar services to schools in the region, both K-12 and colleges. Rakow believes that the Ithaca community is aware of the need to address the “mental health pandemic” many experts believe accompanied the Covid crisis.
Rakow said that another key part of MindWell’s mission is to support the training and retention of high-quality evidence-based clinicians in upstate New York. To that end, MindWell has formed partnerships with the University at Albany and Binghamton University to provide training through externships for graduate programs in clinical psychology.
Watch: Promotional video about the MindWell Center
Evidence-Based Care (EBC) is an evolving standard of care involving a variety of treatments endorsed by leading mental health associations. According to experts, it emphasizes integrating the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of a patient’s culture, individual characteristics, and personal preferences. Nonetheless, as a 2013 New York Times article pointed out, “surprisingly few patients actually get these kinds of evidence-based treatments” despite numerous trials demonstrating their effectiveness.
MindWell clinicians are trained to provide Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Measurement-Based Care (MBC) to carry out its evidence-based approach. According to the American Psychological Association, CBT encourages patients to recognize distortions in their thinking that are creating problems, and learn problem-solving skills to cope with difficult situations.
Any good therapist will utilize treatment elements such as reflective listening, validation, and empathy. As Rakow describes it, evidence-based treatment adds a roadmap for the client and the therapist to most efficiently decrease the symptoms of disorders through specific strategies and techniques that have been proven through science. In treating a patient with depression, Rakow explained, the therapist will assess the factors behind the patient’s negative thinking patterns. Then the treatment will focus on teaching coping skills that can change the patient’s cognitive narrative.
“The client gets a workbook to help their guidance and help their process at home,” said Rakow. “The clinician has a workbook to help guide the sessions. That is an evidence-based intervention in practice.”
Furthermore, MBC bases clinical care on data collected from patients throughout their treatment; experts say that MBC provides insight into treatment progress, highlights ongoing treatment targets, reduces symptom deterioration, and improves client outcomes.
“We are looking at every single session for the individual on how they are improving, if they are improving,” Rakow explained. “And if they are not, what can we be doing differently on an interventional level?”
To use an example, Rakow said that a clinician treating anxiety will have patients fill out screen tests during every therapy session to measure increases or decreases in symptoms. “So they can say, ‘It looks like you’ve had a difficult week. We’re seeing your anxiety go up. Let’s see how we can calibrate the treatment effectively to bring that level back down. Because we know you have that potential.’ If we are not practicing measurement-based care, we’re not practicing evidence-based care. Those two things must always go together,” Rakow said.
Some team members at MindWell are equipped to prescribe medications. That said, Rakow points out that many of the most evidence-based strategies involve the combination of psychotherapy and medication management, as opposed to a treatment regimen that involves medication management alone. Thus, MindWell’s team of multidisciplinary providers collaborate closely on cases to ensure that the treatments are optimally calibrated to each patient’s individual needs.
Population-level initiatives provide easier access to mental health treatment, Rakow explained. “There are far too many barriers to accessing high quality mental health care in our country,” Rakow said. “We will partner with hospitals, with school systems, with institutions of higher education, with businesses big and large, to provide integrated mental health solutions for their employees, for their pupils, for their staff, for their patients, to make the process of accessing mental health care that much easier.”
Rakow said that businesses are receptive to upstream mental health support for their employees, especially amid the Covid-19 pandemic, in part because they realize that decreased wellness can impact productivity and profits. He said that MindWell services for K-12 schools can focus on administrators, teachers, and staff as well as students and their parents.
School-integrated support helps parents avoid what can be a difficult challenge in navigating mental health services for their children on their own, Rakow said. “If you are a mom or dad, and your child needs mental health care, you have to locate a provider, wait for that provider to have an opening, take time off to drive across town and take that child to that appointment, wait while the child is seen, and follow up with the clinician,” Rakow said. “That could take weeks or months to treat, in the best-case circumstances.”
MindWell’s model for higher education similarly supports faculty and staff members while seeking to relieve the increasing burden on student counseling services.
“College student mental health is right now an extremely high need for our field,” said Rakow. “The institutions of higher ed in our region are taking this issue extremely seriously and have put an incredible amount of thought and commitment and resources towards it. But our need in our society from a mental health perspective continues to grow and the demand for it continues to increase. We need to really think innovatively about how we can provide support and access points for undergraduate and graduate populations of learners in our community to be able to effectively meet that demand.”
UPDATE: MindWell is working with regional insurance carriers to become in-network as soon as possible to increase access to its care model. In the meantime, MindWell offers a generous sliding scale for clients in need. MindWell also offers what it calls courtesy billing whereby the MindWell team submits the claim on the behalf of the client so they can focus on their care rather than dealing with paperwork.