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Coronavirus poses new set of challenges for Mental Health Assn.

STORY BY MARY SCHENKEL (Week of January 28, 2021)
Photo: Philip Cromer, Chief Executive Officer for the Mental Health Association.

The Mental Health Association in Indian River County has a new CEO, and does he have his hands full.

Philip Cromer, Ph.D., is taking over as head of the organization at a time when it is dealing with a pandemic-induced 30 percent increase in the number of people with new or worsening mental health issues who are seeking help, an upward trend that continues.

“The next real pandemic is a mental health pandemic,” Cromer says. “There’s such an overwhelming need for services now, not just in our community, but all over the country.”

Cromer said besides people who are having new mental health problems related to pandemic conditions, symptoms and incidences are considerably worsened for those already experiencing moderate to severe mental health issues. At the same time, there has been an increase in suicide risk.

“Any symptom that might have been mild, COVID raises the symptomology to moderate or severe,” said Cromer, who joined the organization as chief clinical officer in 2020, at the start of the coronavirus shutdowns. Earlier this month, he replaced Dr. Nicholas Coppola as CEO and will serve in both roles for the time being.

Cromer received his Master’s in Counseling and Ph.D. in Psychology from West Virginia University. After a short time in private practice in the Stuart area, he worked as director of the Psychological Services Center at the Florida Atlantic University Jupiter campus. After relocating to Vero Beach, he opened a private practice before joining the MHA.

He will continue to oversee all clinical programs, including the Walk-In and Counseling Center, which is responsible for therapeutic services for the 19th Judicial Mental Health Court and manages a full case load of clients. 

Free mental health screenings are provided at the center to children and adults without an appointment between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. 

Besides keeping existing facilities open during the pandemic – including three peer-operated Drop-In Centers, one each in Vero Beach, Okeechobee and Stuart, where people with persistent and severe mental health issues are provided with a supportive recovery orientated environment 365 days a year – the Mental Health Association has expanded online services.

Telehealth options have been adopted for follow-up therapy and psychiatric medication refills, and a virtual Mood and Anxiety Support Group has been developed. 

“We recently upgraded our technology so if someone is not able to come in for some reason, or if they have an underling health condition, they can go on a secure site to meet with one of our mental health professionals online. It’s another way we’re dealing with a growing need,” said Cromer.  

“The greatest challenge right now is just continuing to provide quality mental health services to meet the tremendous influx of need,” Cromer added. “We really pride ourselves in having no boundaries to treatment.”

The nonprofit agency has started a Veteran Support Group at the Vero Beach Drop-In Center and is continuing to provide depression education programs at local middle schools and high schools. He said the program, Erika’s Lighthouse, is an important means of educating students about suicide and violence prevention.

“We’re really doing quite a bit,” Cromer said. “We’re serving adults, children and the elderly. We’re in our schools, we’re providing free screenings, ongoing counseling services, and we also offer psychiatric services for those who need psychotropic medications.”

Going forward, Cromer is concerned about gaining adequate funding to hire new staff and meet the growing need for mental health services in Indian River County. As a nonprofit, the agency is reliant on grants, donations and fundraisers – the later all canceled due to the pandemic.

In addition to Cromer, a licensed psychologist, the agency’s clinical staff includes a psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse practitioner as well as licensed mental health counselors. A licensed social worker is on staff and Cromer is seeking a second social worker. 

“Our motto at the MHA is ‘It’s OK to get help.’ People can come in for free mental health screenings in person or go to our website ( and do a mental health screening right there, online,” said Cromer. “We’re trying to break the stigma surrounding mental health.” 

Help paying for treatment, if needed, is discussed after the free screening, Cromer said. “We encourage everyone [who needs help] to come and we’re going to work something out.”