It was a perfect storm: The nation’s mental health crisis and the novel coronavirus pandemic colliding to form, in essence, a dual pandemic that behavioral healthcare workers have had to face head-on.
“We were challenged with how we were going to be able to face this overwhelming surge of mental health needs,” said Tim Perry, Frontier Health’s senior vice president for children’s services, “and we’re still seeing that need.”
Perry said the combination of pandemic-related isolation, grief, school shutdowns, limited access to mental health care, job loss and social and political unrest combined in a “wave of mental health need” while providers were forced to deal with staffing shortages due to illness and quarantines, limited access to clinics and the use of telehealth.
“What we did in response to that was pretty phenomenal, actually,” Perry said, noting that they used virtual telehealth services to reach more people, kept clinics open to improve access to care and coordinated with schools to provide virtual student assistance counseling for at-risk youth. “We had to do this at a very rapid and a very limited time-frame to be able to get the services they needed to folks.”
At ReVIDA Recovery, an addiction treatment company with facilities across East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, the phones haven’t stopped ringing — an audible barometer of the surging need for behavioral health services in the region, a surge that’s required an extraordinary response.
“Without question, it was a herculean effort and I’ve never been prouder of our team,” said ReVIDA CEO Lee Dilworth. “But, it’s been very difficult and our team of providers has sacrificed (a lot), but they’ve risen to the occasion because for the people who work in this field, and our team at ReVIDA, it’s a mission as much as it is work.”
In Tennessee, overdose deaths per 100,000 people increased by 41.2%, while a February report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that drug overdose-related emergency room department visits were up 45% nationwide in 2020 compared to 2019. In terms of mental health, a Boston University study found that depression among adults has tripled since the beginning of the pandemic, with the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder increasing four-fold during the pandemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Recently, Dilworth announced the ReVIDA Resilience Plan — a phased approach to re-introducing providers and staff to in-person treatment settings, beginning on April 1. And while returning to work in an office setting brings back some sense of normalcy, the surge in need isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.
“Our phones have kept ringing with need,” Dilworth said. “Without question, our phones still ring, and ring a lot, with need.”
Perry said he feels the pandemic has helped shine a light on the importance of taking care of your mental health, while also breaking some of the stigma for those who seek help.
“I think the pandemic has really brought to light the seriousness of mental health issues and how it can affect anyone,” Perry said. “It’s kind of reduced the stigma, recognizing that we all went through a phenomenon that stretched our emotions and our mental health and stressed us to a level that was affecting our mental stability, our mental health and our emotions.
“I think it brought to light just how vulnerable any of us are to having mental health problems, and we’re all in need of one another’s assistance to help get through this,” he continued.
Perry also said he expects the need for behavioral health services to continue increasing “probably for another year or so” and said they are “trying to meet the needs as best we can with the resources we have with an overwhelming number of individuals having those services.”
“It pulls on the heart-strings,” Perry said. “We’re in this profession to serve people and because we care about the needs of individuals, and we want to meet the needs of everyone that we possibly can, and you do the best you can to meet those but when you see people suffering and struggling — not only in our community but in our own families, our own coworkers.
“It was taxing on our own, as providers, our own mental health and our own stress levels as we were trying to meet the needs of so many others around us,” Perry continued, “and when you have to set that aside to reach out to help others, it can be very taxing and very challenging for us emotionally.”