Need for Mental Health Care, and Barriers to It, Rise during COVID-19Jul 31, 2020 02:26PM ● By J.D. O’Gara
Mental health issues are important community concerns in normal times, and they certainly don’t go away during times of a pandemic. If anything, struggles are amplified.
“Families are not normally all under one roof,” says Sen. Karen Spilka (D-Ashland), “People are fighting isolation, loneliness and depression.”
The Massachusetts Senate President worked with the Secretary of Health and Human Services to use a portion of $10 million earmarked for innovation in mental health programs to create a PSA, released May 15, aimed at reducing stigma of mental health issues during the pandemic.
“Ask, Listen, Encourage, and Check-in – ALEC,” says Spilka, of the campaign aimed at helping communities care for each other.
Locally, repercussions from the pandemic are being felt. The number of overdoses is up, according to S.A.F.E. Coalition President Jen Knight, who is alerted to overdose statistics town by town, as S.A.F.E. provides support and grief counseling. The S.A.F.E. Coalition is based out of Norfolk.
“We’ve seen a huge spike in overdoses, and alcohol use is the highest I’ve seen in my professional career,” says Knight, who gets information from local police to provide grief counseling. Knight explains that many who already have a mental health component use alcohol to self-soothe, and what she’s seeing now that she hadn’t before is a rise in calls on behalf of their students, who are binge drinking at home.
Those who rely on AA or NA are seeing a higher relapse rate, too, as Knight says, “While all the Zoom and phone calls are wonderful, there’s a whole host of folks who don’t have access to a smart phone or a laptop, or the Internet. Without any recovery support network, relapse is so much more imminent.”
“It is absolutely accurate that the pandemic has caused a ripple effect in the systems put in place to support those with addiction and recovery,” agrees Jackie Winer, Director of Holliston Youth & Family Services, who co-chairs the Holliston Drug and Alcohol Awareness Coalition (HDAAC) with Melissa Stacy. “We have seen an increase in overdoses as a result,” says Winer.
Winer says caregivers are now needing support for family members who suddenly end up at their doorsteps. These family members need support in helping navigate recovery for their loved ones home from a rehab or who’ve been estranged.
As for S.A.F.E., Knight says, “COVID-19 has drastically changed how this coalition functions from a very basic level. We had opened up (our new location) with plans to open a support group, but due to COVID-19, all of that has been put on hold.”
The pandemic forced S.A.F.E. to confront how it can provide electronically the same services to the community while at the same time maintaining a high level of privacy. “Even 10 people was not something we wanted to risk,” says Knight.
All the S.A.F.E. services, which are free of charge, have moved to telephone or online formats. Support groups, which have seen a rise in demand, include a Learn to Cope group for families of those dealing with substance use disorder on Mondays, a Grandparents Raising Grandchildren group on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays, a 12-step program for parents on Wednesdays, and another general support group for parents on Saturday. They also provide peer mentorship, a grief counselor and chaplain, information on Section 35 and direct clinical counseling in partnership with Wayside Youth and Family Support Systems.
To maintain anonymity, Knight says, S.A.F.E. requires a call first.
“If someone calls and wants to join, we’ll have someone talk with them about the group and whether it will be a good fit, and then we’ll share the (login) information, to honor that privacy.” The S.A.F.E. support line is (508) 488-8105.
S.A.F.E. Narcan training has gone online as well.
“We’ve made a Narcan training video,” says Knight. “If someone wants to be trained in Narcan, they can watch the video, sign the electronic form, and we can drop off Narcan in their mailbox.”
HDAAC, the Holliston Drug and Alcohol Awareness Coalition stakeholders, also provides Narcan, and stakeholders are still virtually meeting weekly, says Winer.
One isue she’s seeing during this pandemic is the normalization of drinking, which HDAAC is looking at combating with educational social media. Also, those in methadone or similar treat
ment are dealing with less flexibility in obtaining treatment.
Isolation can also take a toll on families, says Winer. “There are some families that just don’t have the resources they need to be able to get through this in a way that’s adaptive,” she says. “The challenge is reaching them, and getting them to connect to us. We think of ourselves as an access point to which individuals can receive support in the community, (bridging) that divide if individuals are having barriers to getting mental health care, whether it’s insurance, a transportation issue, or sometimes families sometimes just don’t know how to navigate the system.”
Outside of Holliston, Winer says, “If you’re confused and don’t know where to turn, just reach out to your town department of social services, or if your town doesn’t have one, perhaps turn to an outreach coordinator at your local senior center.” Another option is to reach out to a community member like a guidance counselor, social worker or doctor you trust.
Winer encourages folks to embrace the new telehealth format of mental health care, pointing to a study by McLean Hospital that showed it to be just as effective as face-to-face therapy.
“We want to encourage families who are reluctant to try it,” says Winer.