Ken Dority is worried.
Two months into the coronavirus pandemic, Dority, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Greenville, can see another health crisis approaching.
This one is fueled by anxiety, isolation and what Dority calls “information overload.”
“The biggest fear that I have is that many people are starting to experience post-traumatic stress, and they’re not getting help that they need,” Dority said.
The outbreak, which so far has claimed more than 275 lives and 400,000 jobs in South Carolina, has upended every aspect of normal life. In response, Upstate residents are reaching out for help.
Mental Health America of Greenville County, which manages the Upstate’s three crisis hotlines, has seen a significant uptick in calls and is struggling to respond to the growing call volume, said Susan Haire, the agency’s director of community engagement and development.
The number of calls taken by the agency from Feb. 1 through April 29 increased 33% when compared with the same period last year. A majority of those calls, according to Haire, are related to anxiety over the coronavirus.
“We have seen that the distress levels are, on average, much higher than what they typically are and that their distress levels are decreasing less during the call,” she said.
People are still calling for many of the same reasons – relationships, money trouble, job security – but, Haire said, “a common theme is that those particular issues are heightened because of the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, more than one-third of Americans say the crisis has had “a serious impact on their mental health,” according to a poll by the American Psychiatric Association. Nearly 60% feel the pandemic “is having a serious impact on their day-to-day lives.”
“All of us are struggling with new routines and new pressures of having to potentially homeschool our children, of having to work remotely or the loss of a job,” Haire said. “These kinds of things are having serious effects on all of us, but they can be especially difficult for [people struggling with mental illness].”
Getting help during the pandemic
The mental health system has had to adapt to the coronavirus — just like everything else.
“The whole system has had to react to that and get up to speed on how they’re getting in touch [with patients],” Dority said.
At NAMI, all in-person classes and support groups have been suspended, and sessions are now held on Zoom. Both of its support groups — one for adults with mental illness and the other for their family members and caregivers — meet Monday nights.
Roughly 15 to 20 people attend each group on any given night, according to Dority.
“That kind of thing is helping,” he said. “People are responding and saying that this is an important part of their ongoing wellness.”
Mental Health America of Greenville County is staying up to date on what resources are available to hotline callers and referring them to agencies such as NAMI, the Phoenix Center and FAVOR Greenville, which provides intervention and recovery support services, Haire said.
NAMI has also released a COVID-19 resource and information guide to help people with mental illnesses understand what steps they can take if they’re feeling anxiety and stress from the pandemic.
Despite these virtual offerings, Dority is worried that many mental health patients aren’t getting the help that they need because they don’t have access to the technology or are afraid of contracting the virus if they go to the ER.
“Many of them are not following those medical plans appropriately, and we’re going to pay for that down the road,” he said.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
Crisis Text Line – Text HOME to 741741
How protect your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak:
- Maintain a routine
- Take reasonable precautions, but don’t go overboard
- Find ways to “get going”
- Try not to fixate on sleep
- Stick with consistent mealtimes
- Practice mindfulness and acceptance techniques
- Be kind to yourself
Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness