Unity Center Clinical Social Workers Break Down Barriers

Access to continuing care and services are key for patients as they work toward wellness.

March 28, 2022

Finding a doctor, getting the care and medications one needs, securing affordable housing or connecting with a counselor can be overwhelming on a good day. But when a person is experiencing a mental health crisis, getting the resources one needs can feel like an impossible hurdle.

That’s where a social worker comes in—they are the barrier breakers who will help a patient get the assistance they need to continue their journey to wellness.

At Unity Center for Behavioral Health, 38 clinical social workers collaborate in tandem with an interdisciplinary team to ensure each patient is connected to the right resources at the right time. They work to formulate the clinical picture of each patient through assessment of strengths, clinical needs, resources and connecting with community support systems.

Unity Center is a 24-hour behavioral and mental health services center located in Portland. It provides immediate psychiatric care and a path to stabilization and recovery for those experiencing a mental health crisis.

Recently, three Unity Center clinical social workers, Becca Arnold, LCSW; Dayna Cronin, LCSW; and Alison Daniels, LCSW, reflected on the work they do to help patients. Each of them has served in social work for many years and entered the profession for the same reason—to make a difference in people’s lives.

Daniels, crisis intervention specialist lead, has been with Unity Center since the day it opened five years ago. She’s seen a lot of changes since then and a concerning increase in the number of people in crisis, due in large part to the pandemic, which has led to limited resources and requiring hospitals to fill gaps that were otherwise met on an outpatient basis.

“We have a lot of patients who experience huge barriers—houselessness, substance abuse, complex medical issues, and the first and foremost, mental illness. It’s my job to open doors by reaching out to community resources. Social workers advocate for our patients to get them the services they need.”
“Recently,” she continued, “there’s been an increase in houselessness and a decrease in connections to outpatient therapy—what patients need once they leave Unity. We need therapists who can see people once a week, not once a month. It’s essential.”

Alison Daniels, Crisis Intervention Specialist Lead

Cronin, clinical social worker, emphasized that housing is one of the biggest hurdles she sees for Unity Center patients. Without reliable shelter, it’s difficult to make all the other pieces fall into place. It’s estimated at least 4,000 people or more are houseless in Portland on any given night, according to city statistics.

“We see people come to Unity and they may be in the process of eviction or don’t have housing to begin with and it’s a terrible situation for their overall wellness,” said Cronin, who was named an Employee of the Month at Unity Center for the month of March.

And while funding for support services is critical in improving access, breaking down the stigmas of mental illness must come first, Cronin said.

“Everything else is a band aid. There’s a large gap in knowledge around mental health, particularly for those suffering from severe and persistent mental illness. It’s a major stigma and COVID has only exacerbated the problems. It’s resulted in a decrease in services and dramatic staffing shortages for those in social services.”

Despite these challenges, Unity Center social workers persevere every day, helping them identify their strengths and providing a space for them to feel heard and validated in their experiences.

“It starts with listening to the patient and finding out what is important to them and how they view what is going on in their life,” said Arnold, who has been with Unity Center since its opening. “I want to partner with patients to navigate resources, which includes critical thinking and complex problem solving. I want to know that when they leave the hospital, they feel hopeful and ready to take their next steps. Their diagnosis shouldn’t define them or stop them from living life. Ultimately, patients won’t receive appropriate and necessary resources until we, as a society, break down the stigma of mental illness, value people, and dedicate funds to our wellbeing.”

All three agreed the job is often challenging, especially during the pandemic, but it’s an essential role that brings direct assistance to those in need. Daniels had some sound advice for anyone in the field or for those considering it.

“It’s an amazing role to be in,” she said. “I focus on the things I can do, not the things I can’t. I can be a source of empathy and provide unconditional, positive support for our patients. But you must keep boundaries, too. I am not able to fix or change others, but I can support them where they are in that moment. Social workers need to be patient with themselves and seek out a mentor.”

Becca Arnold, Lead Inpatient Clinical Social Worker

I want to know that when they leave the hospital, they feel hopeful and ready to take their next steps. Their diagnosis shouldn’t define them or stop them from living life.

Becca Arnold

Unity Center is currently hiring to add to its clinical social worker staff. To learn more, visit the careers page online.

“Every day I am amazed at how hard our social work team works and the passion they have for our most vulnerable community members,” said Ron Lagergren, MSW, LCSW, Director of Clinical Operations. “They assess each patient’s needs and create a plan that best sets the patient up for success when they are ready to transition back to the community. This work has been extremely challenging the last couple of years as we’ve watched community resources and services decline. They have met that challenge head on. I’m extremely proud of our team.”

Visit Unity Center online to learn more about its services and how it serves people in the Portland community and beyond.

– Elizabeth Baker, elbaker@lhs.org