State, LSSND team up to offer Project Renew, free phone counseling for all affected by COVID-19

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

With COVID numbers climbing, worries about job security escalating, and parents and kids wondering how this resurgence will affect the new school year, it’s understandable if North Dakotans are struggling right now.

That’s why Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota and the Department of Human Services’ Behavioral Health Division now offer phone-in crisis support, education and referrals for free to anyone, of any age, with COVID-related stress or concerns through the Project Renew partnership.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused stress for many North Dakotans,” said Pamela Sagness, director of the state Behavioral Health Division. “Behavioral health is vital to overall wellness. Brief supportive services from a trained crisis counselor can help individuals identify and understand emotions and connect to resources during this uncertain time.”

Project Renew services include supporting community members in understanding physical and emotional reactions to COVID-19, developing and improving coping strategies, reviewing options, and connecting with other individuals and agencies that may be of assistance.

Callers’ concerns may range from more serious mental-health issues to simply needing someone to talk to amid the social isolation caused by COVID. “You don’t even need to have anguish to use it. If you are lonely and just need someone to talk to, that’s OK too,” says Terri Burns, LSSND's team lead on Project Renew.

Burns cites numerous scenarios which might make people want to reach out:

  • Feeling isolated because age, disability or a pre-existing condition have made sheltering at home without visitors necessary.

  • Being unable to visit loved ones in the nursing home or hospital.

  • Trying to balance jobs with parenting and home-schooling their children.

  • (For kids), worrying about the toll of the pandemic on family dynamics; worrying if they can keep up in school via online learning.

  • (For teachers), fearing that they can't reach students as effectively via online learning or that their high-risk students will drop out.

  • Sheltering at home in households with abusive family members.

  • Already having depression or anxiety, which has been worsened by the pandemic.

  • Worrying about future employment or whether one’s business or store will fail.

  • (For young children who can’t verbalize their fears), sensing the increased tension in the household and acting out accordingly.

  • Worrying we will get sick or give it to vulnerable loved ones.

  • Canceling a long-awaited wedding, christening, trip, retirement party or other special event.

  • (For teens), wondering how the pandemic will affect their college experience.

  • Fearing that life, as we know it, will never be the same again.

“We talk a lot about grief and loss, of course, because we’ve had significant numbers of COVID deaths,” Burns says. “But people are dying of non-COVID things as well, and they haven’t been able to have funerals or memorial services. People haven’t been able to be there to say goodbye to their loved ones. There’s no closure, and that’s really hard for a lot of families to adjust to.”

You don't need to be in full-blown crisis to benefit

Project Renew counseling is confidential and available to anyone who has been affected in any way by the COVID-19 pandemic – whether that be physically, financially or emotionally.

The free service requires very little intake information and can connect callers to professionals trained in crisis counseling in as quickly as an hour, Burns says. While there will be video-chat options, Burns anticipates most sessions will be conducted through a simple phone call.

“If necessary, we can call your 89-year-old grandma on her landline,” Burns says. “When setting this up, I tried to think of as many barriers as possible and how we can eliminate them.”

The LSS crisis-counseling team represents seven different LSS programs, including the Violence Free domestic abuse-prevention program, Abound Counseling, Imagine Thriving, Healthy Families home-visiting program, Adoption Option, Free through Recovery and Family Coaching. These counselors already have experience providing human-service coaching and expertise to families and individuals of all ages. “It does give us a huge range of experience to draw from,” Burns says.

The counselors have also received intensive disaster-relief counseling, which covered topics such as suicide-prevention best practices. The Project Renew group also have pooled resources from their diverse service areas, which can be passed along to callers as needed.

Adaptive technology and translation services also available

Callers can use the Project Renew resource more than once, although counselors may direct them to more long-range support, such as an addiction center or therapist, after several sessions. Every effort will be made to match repeat callers with the same counselor, Burns says, as it can be frustrating to repeat one’s story with a new person each week.

Counselors have also been trained in adaptive technology, so callers familiar with TTY can use the resource. Hand-out resources are being translated into other languages and interpreters will be made available for callers with limited English.

The Project Renew hotline can be reached at 701-223-1510 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT, Monday through Friday. The receptionist, Lesley, will only ask for their first name, county of residence, phone number and the best time for an appointment. Individuals can also send an email to

In addition to offering community support services, the state’s Project Renew initiative includes a website at that serves as a comprehensive resource for information on coping and well-being, wellness tips, and who to call in a crisis situation.

Project Renew grew from a Crisis Counseling Program (CCP) grant awarded to the state’s Department of Human Services’ Behavioral Health Division from FEMA and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Through this grant, the state launched Project Renew with LSSND to provide free and anonymous short-term support services to individuals throughout the state.

By Tammy Swift

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