Social distancing and mask-wearing have been proven as methods to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but they are ineffective against the pandemic’s psychological impact. Nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there has been a marked increase in the number of Americans struggling with mental or behavioral health issues, and a recent Boston University study indicates that the number of adults experiencing depression has tripled, particularly among the less affluent.
Locally, the Mental Health Association of Indian River County has seen a 12 percent increase in walk-ins who said their needs were a direct result of the pandemic.
Suicide rates have also historically increased as a result of wars, recessions and pandemics, and experts are seeing a similar surge with COVID-19 related concerns such as economic stress, social isolation and fears of contracting the disease. The National Alliance on Mental Illness Help Line reported a 65 percent increase in calls since March, and according to the MHA, the 29 suicides in Indian River County over the past nine months have already matched the 2019 total.
Since April, more people have sought help from the MHA than ever before, said Sheana Firth, MHA director of marketing, adding that September was their busiest month in recent years.
“Many of these people would not be here if it wasn’t for COVID. In reality, there is probably another 20 percent out there that are on the verge of needing help,” said Dr. Nicholas Coppola, MHA CEO.
The MHA has steadfastly continued to provide access to mental health care, providing free mental health screenings to determine treatment needs, creating care plans and offering crisis intervention, psychotherapy services and medication management services for children and adults through individual and group counseling.
Coppola said that even the screening of clients can be a form of mental health therapy, explaining, “You’re going to tell me about your problem and we’re going to discuss it, and we’re going to try and look at ways to cope.”
On the plus side, an increase in community awareness has helped to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
“Knowing that you’re not alone helps; that someone else understands how you feel and that you’re not the only person coming in with those same complaints,” said Coppola.
Conversely, despite an increase in the need for their services, he said that the cancelation of a planned fundraiser and general concerns about the economy have contributed to a decrease in contributions.
Additionally, Coppola said that many of those who lost their jobs are now receiving Emergency Medicaid, which is not widely accepted. Rather than turn those clients away, the MHA is treating them at little or no cost to the client.
“There’s no way to get it paid for, but we have to continue to see them. These are people we’ve been seeing. There’s no way we’re going to let them go,” said Coppola.
The MHA did receive some funding through the CARES Act, and through a grant from the Indian River Community Foundation.
And while health insurance companies rarely covered telehealth medical services prior to the pandemic, Coppola said that its acceptance is now enabling extended avenues of care.
“It’s opened up the opportunity to care for people that otherwise might not have gotten care. That’s the wonderful thing about telehealth,” said Coppola.
They recently received a grant from the United Way of IRC to purchase an electronic medical records platform that offers technologically advanced telehealth methods and are seeking additional funds to develop it.
Additionally, the MHA opened a new program for veterans and first responders in the Vero Beach Drop-In Center, made possible through a grant from Gold Star Mothers. The center, at Ponce de Leon Circle, provides a safe space for this critical population to gather on Wednesday evenings with their peers.
Faced with social distancing protocols limiting the number of people in group situations, MHA also developed an online Virtual Mood & Anxiety support group. A clinician facilitates sessions via Zoom for clients dealing with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety or panic attacks, as well as anyone experiencing generalized anxiety, to help them stay connected with others experiencing similar difficulties.
“We want people to know they’re not alone,” stressed Coppola. “We’re here for you.”
Looking forward to better days, MHA is hoping to be able to host their annual fundraiser on Feb. 20 at Oak Harbor. For more information visit MHAIRC.org.