LGBTQ health orgs provide mental, physical health services amid rising COVID cases

(Philadelphia Gay News photo)

By Michele Zipkin

PHILADELPHIA — Amid a rise in coronavirus cases in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania, Gayborhood health organizations are doing what they can to provide both mental and physical health resources to the public. Mental health support is important under normal circumstances, but it is crucial considering the social and political state of affairs in the U.S.

The William Way LGBT Community Center’s peer counseling services, while currently offered only remotely, are still available for free.

The center’s volunteer peer counselors are trained and supervised by professionals in the field of mental health. They address many issues that LGBTQ+-identified individuals tend to face, such as coming out, sexual or gender identity, familial and romantic relationships, loneliness, HIV and AIDS, drug abuse, aging, legal matters and overall health and safety.

William Way’s peer counselors provide services that can supplement sessions with a psychologist or psychiatrist, said volunteer counselor Jamie Wojtal.

“We do so much more than just therapy because a lot of the time, especially during the pandemic, I’ve gotten calls [from people seeking out] resources about legal stuff because they need help with rent,” Wojtal said. “Even before, I would be talking to people who were also talking to therapists.” Wojtal has also been helping to promote the program on social media in tandem with a handful of their fellow peer counselors.

People seek out William Way’s peer counseling services for a diverse ranges of issues.

“For some people, it’s to get them through a rough time, or to help them deal with a specific event,” Wojtal said. “A lot of people call about coming out, and — this is my guess — people feel especially comfortable calling to ask questions about coming out because you don’t have to go into the center and maybe be seen.”

For some who are not yet open with their sexual orientation or gender identity, the pandemic and political unrest have inspired them to come out, said Steve Serafin, William Way’s peer counseling coordinator.

“When people are faced with things like pandemics and all the things that are going on, I think it brings a lot of things to the service for them emotionally, and they can get quite raw,” Serafin continued.

Peer counselor Joe Pomrink and Kyle Schultz, who works as a professional psychologist but donates some of his time for free, have been particularly instrumental in William Way’s peer counseling program, Serafin said.

“I’ve been there 40 years – I couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t such a wonderful group of people,” he added.

Considering the fact that William Way’s peer counseling services are completely remote, both Wojtal and Serafin discussed expanding the program’s reach to people living out of state. Wojtal has received some calls from non-Pennsylvania residents during the pandemic.

Not only is mental health support vital during these tumultuous times, accessible physical health resources are equally critical. The team at Action Wellness has been collaborating with their long-time partner Family Practice Counseling Network to provide single-day coronavirus testing sites at the Action Wellness office at 6th Street and Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia.

The next testing dates will occur on Nov. 12th and Dec. 10th. Roughly 100-150 people got tested at the organization’s first two testing sites, said Action Wellness Executive Director Kevin Burns.

“I think the beauty in terms of us doing this in North Philadelphia on 6th Street is that it’s easily accessible for the people in that community,” Burns added.

Those seeking this free testing do not have to be experiencing coronavirus symptoms or have a prescription, they just need to provide photo ID.

“We could not begin to think about doing this without our partnership with Family Practice and Counseling Network,” Burns added. “They have been such a strong partner with us for so many years, and we’re really grateful to them for partnering with us to make this available in North Philly.”

Also in the domain of physical health, in-person and take-home HIV tests are now available at Mazzoni Center’s Washington West Project at 12th and Locust streets. The center is largely promoting call-in appointments, and staff is currently working on a plan for walk-ins. Even though they have been getting fewer clients than usual because of the pandemic, HIV testing is no less important.

“We definitely know that people have been sexually active during the pandemic, so we want to make sure that we are still providing that service,” said Vince Du, community health engagement manager at Mazzoni Center. “A lot of people may not be linked into care and they want to be linked into care.”

Take-home HIV test kits are also available at Mazzoni’s Mobile Testing Unit, which provides testing resources to communities that don’t typically have access to them. These mobile testing RVs are currently available at Vernon Park in Germantown on Mondays from 1-4 p.m., and at Clark Park in West Philly on Fridays during the same time frame, Du told PGN in an email. They change location every few months.

“A key purpose is to build a relationship with the local business and the community members,” he added.

Du emphasized the importance of following protective procedures to ensure the safety of clients and staff members, even when coronavirus cases start to ease. Mazzoni staff hopes to continue testing for walk-in clients, with safety measures in place.

“We want to make sure that anyone who’s coming into the building is wearing a mask, all the staff are wearing proper PPE with their face mask and face shield, gloves and minimizing face-to-face contact,” Du said.

Michele Zipkin is a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, where this story first appeared