Mental Health Centers Respond to Uptick in Demand

Experts say practice physical distancing but stay socially connected through technology such as Zoom, FaceTime

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The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a mental health toll on the population as a whole. Local mental health centers report an uptick in demand for services.

“We have seen an increase in the number of patients presenting to emergency rooms across the area in need of psychiatric care and treatment. We have also seen an increase in the number of patients presenting with acute substance intoxication with suicidal ideation,” said Lauren Lucht, executive director of mental and behavioral health at The University of Kansas Health System.

She added, “We are concerned about the volume and the acuity of patients in need of care and treatment for mental health and substance abuse treatment. Outpatient clinics have growing waitlists and we are doing our best to keep up with demand without sacrificing our extremely high standards of care.”

At Johnson County Mental Health Center, emergency contacts to the 24/7 crisis line have increased by nearly 30% since the onset of COVID-19, compared to the same time period in 2019.

“We are seeing a lot of increased depression, anxiety and fear of the unknown. We are living in a very uncertain time,” said Tim DeWeese, center director. “Some people are not coping effectively. We see an increase in substance abuse and alcohol consumption. While people think this is hard on children, they actually are more adaptable.”

Added Lucht, “Our community is struggling. We are stressed and tired of living with this pandemic. People are not able to do all the things that used to bring them comfort. Parents are trying to be heroes by taking on the roles of both teacher and good employee, as they are called upon to supervise virtual lessons for their children while they work from home. Many of us feel the need to be everything to everyone.”

To help meet the increased demand, the KU Health System is recruiting additional physicians and psychologists. They also continue to work to improve the mental health care delivery system.

Johnson County Mental Health Center has repurposed staff to meet demand and have greatly increased the use of telemedicine, DeWeese said. Patient education and communication initiatives have been expanded, including the “ApartNotAlone” social media campaign, a “Mental Health Moments” weekly email to 2,000 county residents, “It’s Okay if You’re Not Okay” podcasts, virtual parent and child support groups and more.

DeWeese noted that changing the parent support groups to virtual actually increased participation, since it became more convenient to attend.

He offers several suggestions to people on coping with the pandemic. “The first thing is to fight the isolation. Practice physical distancing but stay socially connected. Mitigate the risk by wearing a mask. Use technology such as Zoom and FaceTime to your advantage. Realize that your emotional reactions to the pandemic are natural.”

Regarding children, he added: “Children are going to be looking to their parents for guidance. If you have a catastrophic view of the pandemic, it will translate to them. We can turn this into an opportunity to build a more resilient generation of young people who can delay gratification and overcome barriers. This is a season; it will end.”

Commented Lucht, “Take care of yourself and remember that we will get through this. And if you’re in crisis, please reach out for help. Go to the nearest emergency department or contact the National Suicide Hotline.”