The COVID-19 pandemic — with its associated lockdown, and even without it — has created mental health challenges that have played out in assorted ways, according to a panel of experts who addressed the topic in a Zoom session organized by the League of Women Voters Hillsborough County.
“I heard from parents of children who were maybe 6 years old, bedwetting, acting out aggression, not wanting to leave home,” said Natasha Pierre, executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Hillsborough.
She said she was not prepared for the number of college students who reached out, who were dealing with work, parents having COVID, roommates having COVID, or not having insurance.
“I heard from a lot of veterans. Veterans, who because of the stillness, were having memories of combat,” she said.
She heard from women who had experienced military sexual trauma or date rape.
“Because of the stillness, once again, these memories are coming back,” she said, noting many of those women had never reported the assault.
She also heard from retired people, who were financially stable, but felt socially isolated.
The pandemic created a mental health crisis, with people feeling overwhelmed by frustration, fear and stress, she said.
The first step for getting help is to let someone know you need it, said Pierre, who has lived with mental illness for more than 20 years.
“We know that there are people that are being affected by a mental illness, and they’re not talking. They are living in pain. Suffering in silence. They’re existing in a silo,” said Pierre, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder ultradian.
She shares her experiences, with the goal of helping others.
“When it comes to public awareness, we know that storytelling saves lives,” Pierre said.
“The only reason I am speaking to you tonight — with certainty — is because I had great insurance at a time when I needed it most.
“The reality is that the vast majority of the people who need the treatment that I got, will not receive it,” Pierre said.
Stigma and self-stigma are the biggest barriers to people seeking help, she said.
But she added, it’s important for people with mental health challenges to know: “‘You’re not alone. You’re not the only one feeling anxious when you leave home. You’re not the only one concerned about going back to work. You’re not the only one that is in active grief.”
An essential part of helping those who are suffering is to simply be present, she said.
“Sometimes support is: ‘I’m so sorry that happened to you. That sounds awful. That’s probably hard on you. What can I do to help. I’m going to check on you later tonight.’
“Hurting in a silo, in my experience, causes people to lose their lives. Suffering in silence leads to decreased and diminished hope, and if there is anything people need right now, people need hope.
“They need hope that tomorrow will be the day that a job calls me back.
“Tomorrow will be the day where I have insurance.
“Tomorrow will be the day where I can fall asleep and remain asleep through the night.
“That tomorrow will be the day where I am less paranoid, or I am able to keep food down.
“As long as we can fuel and empower hope, in our communities, we have a chance to reduce the number of people who take their lives,” Pierre said.
She continued: “I’ve heard it many times, you know, ‘People who die by suicide, they take the easy way out.’ As a person who has had suicidal thoughts, as a person who has been suicidal, that is not true.
“When that’s an option for you — you’ve run out of options. You’ve run out of hope. You are hopeless, (you’re thinking) there’s no way life can change,’” she said.
She said she keeps telling her story and talking about the work that NAMI and mental health community partners do, in an effort to change that trajectory.
“We want to get to someone before they make that decision (to take their own life), before they have that plan,” Pierre said.
Suicide calls spiked
Sunny Hall, vice president of client services for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, said the call volume ramped up because of COVID-19.
Suicide calls increased dramatically, she said.
“What was super alarming to us was (that) calls from kids, ages 13 to 18, went up 36% — suicide calls from kids 13 to 18 went up 36%,” Hall said.
A spike in suicide calls is not unprecedented, she said, noting there was jump in the volume after Robin Williams took his own life, and the same with Kate Spade.
During COVID, Hall said, “the suicide calls started going up and they stayed up, and they’re still up.”
She highlighted another startling statistic involving sexual assault calls: “We saw a 70% increase in people who met their assailant online. People were meeting their assailant online, then they were going to physically meet them,”
Hall also addressed COVID-19’s impacts on children.
“One in 500 kids in our country have lost a caregiver, they’ve lost somebody close to them, to COVID. There’s a lot of anxiety,” Hall said.
“Kids in school are seeing teachers or teacher’s spouses, dying, especially in the last three, four months.
“I was talking to someone in the Pasco school system the other day and the social workers have responded every week to a death of an adult in the Pasco County school system. So, that’s what’s happening to kids. Those triggers lead them to some acute needs, related to mental health,” Hall said.
Alan Davidson, chief clinical officer for Central Florida Behavioral Health Network, said the aging population also has felt the extra mental health challenges because of COVID-19.
Some have experienced social isolation; others have chosen or have been forced to retire early; some have had trouble accessing specialized care or day-to-day assistance that they need; and, some have faced a whole new set of adjustments, as changing circumstances have caused them to move.
Hall said the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay has honed its focus and its mission to ensure that no one faces crisis alone.
The panelists encouraged anyone needing help to reach out to let someone know.
Here are some numbers you can call:
Suicide prevention lifeline: 800-273-8255
NAMI Helpline, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.: 800-950-6264
Crisis Center of Tampa Bay: 2-1-1 (to connect with local resources)
Published December 08, 2021