The COVID-19 pandemic put a focus on mental health needs, but now service providers in New York say they are struggling to meet demand amid concerns over funding and a lack of staff. 

But now, service providers are being asked to do more as people emerge from more than a year of isolation and social distancing and grapple with the subsequent mental health strain of the crisis.  

"The pandemic, we saw the mental health needs have increased. Unfortunately, our workforce has shrunk," Association for Community Living Executive Director Sebrina Barrett said.

The programs that provide mental health services played a key role during the pandemic, but from housing to vacant staffing and the new 988 suicide prevention hotline that will soon be available has placed a strain on providers. 

It's a workforce that providers will have to retain to provide life-saving services for people who are struggling with mental health. But many jobs in the field are vacant, just as New York state officials are asking them to do more. 

At issue is funding for these jobs that for years has not kept pace with a rising minimum wage. 

"The problem is we don't have the workforce infrastructure to support the growing need in mental health," Barrett said. "What needs to happen is we need to invest in our workforce. We need to make these jobs attractive. Right now, our direct care workforce is making minimum wage. These are not minimum wage jobs."

New York is creating a new suicide prevention hotline called 988, an alternative to dialing 911. The move is being hailed by advocates for mental health. But Jeff Rovitz, of the Mental Health Association of Columbia and Greene Counties, said that's an example of services being expanded without the necessary staff in place. Coupled with the needs for housing programs, and providers are facing sharp challenges. 

"There's going to be significant questions related to funding for these services," Rovitz said. "There's going to be a snowfall effect. It's a great thing to happen, but there needs to be additional resources in the community."