Editor’s note: In order to protect the privacy of a patient who was undergoing treatment at a mental health facility, the Post and Courier has chosen to omit the last name.
Allison, 40, taught in higher education for 16 years until the pandemic hit.
Her five daily classes switched to a Zoom format overnight in addition to other consequences of the pandemic, which included her husband losing his job.
“While students were given resources to help them cope, the faculty weren’t and instead were worked to death,” she said. “It got to the point where I was like, I just can’t handle this.”
One of Allison’s colleagues committed suicide.
She sought help at a mental health facility on March 16. As a psychologist, she knew she was in a mental health emergency.
“I didn’t want to end up in the same position as that professor did and no one even knew it was a problem,” she said.
For more than a year, most have practiced some level of social distancing amid concerns of possibly catching and spreading the coronavirus. Combine those factors with a rise in unemployment and an economic downturn, and you’ve got a mental health crisis.
“Even the strongest — people who have never had issues — are experiencing anxiety and paranoia knowing they could get a disease that’s erratic and could lead to death,” said Mary Ann Bennett, a registered nurse and chief operations officer for Havenwood Behavioral Health in Travelers Rest. Havenwood provides mental care for adults.
More than 42 percent of people surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau in December said they had symptoms of anxiety or depression. That’s an 11 percent increase from the previous year. Mental health service nonprofits saw a 22 percent increase in need in South Carolina, according to a new survey of 927 nonprofits in the state by Together SC.
The National Alliance on Mental Health in Greenville saw a 40 percent increase in calls asking for help during the pandemic compared to the previous year, said executive director Ken Dority. Mental Health America of Greenville County (MHAGC) saw an 84 percent increase in calls last year, although it also expanded its coverage area, said Director of Community Engagement Susan Haire. The rate of calls from October to January increased even more, putting it on track to double calls again this year, Haire said.
More worrying than an increase in calls is that MHAGC has seen a sharp increase in distress level, which is assessed at the beginning and end of each call, Haire said. There was a 169 percent surge in the number of calls that needed emergency support in the period between October 2020 to January 2021 compared to the same time frame a year earlier, she said. Likewise, Havenwood has seen an increase in the number of patients so distraught they are unable to answer the standard background health questions within the first 24 hours.
Asking for help with mental health problems can be difficult. Now, even after someone asks for help, they may have trouble getting it. Many hospitals over the past year were heavily focused on COVID-19 patients or seen as off-limits because of the risk of catching the virus.
“There are roadblocks to their normal access to care, and I think that really hurt them and led to an increased suicide rate,” Bennett said.
Teens and children have seen the sharpest increase in mental health problems after being cut off from social sources and spending more time in homes with various levels of dysfunction, said Mike Rowley, CEO of Havenwood.
“Teens thrive in routine and structure,” Rowley said.
The hospitals that Havenwood works with have had waiting lists with 20 to 30 teens and kids that need a bed for mental health treatment. Rowley compared turning teens away during a mental health crisis to turning away someone with a gunshot wound.
After being admitted to a hospital for mental health treatment, the patient is first stabilized and put in a safe environment. Then they are given medication to bring anxiety down and help them self regulate. They also take part in group and private therapy sessions.
“I checked in three days ago and am feeling much better,” Allison said. “I don’t think I’ll be here much longer.”
The pandemic was a leveler in that it was potentially devastating regardless of income or location, Rowley said. The infection rate was significant nationwide. It impacted every aspect of life, and the isolation and loneliness experienced by many was profound.
Being around other people is what helps us regulate and many Americans lost that this past year, Rowley said.
“Interactions with others is what grounds us,” he said.
The SC Together survey asked nonprofits if there was a silver lining to the past year. A popular answer was that the stigma around mental health is starting to disappear.
“Everyone saw this year a taste of what anxiety feels like and are much more sensitive to the fact that it could happen to anyone, and that it does disrupt every aspect of your life,” Rowley said.
There have been some questions about how people will adapt after the pandemic, including being in close proximity to strangers and returning to offices. Bennett sees all the upcoming changes as positive ones that will relieve overall anxiety levels.
“Individuals in communities can sense and feel danger and anxiety,” she said. “[When we start returning to normal] they will feel less stress from around them which will help them regulate.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255. MHAGC has 50 volunteers at this time and is looking for more. The work can be done remotely. Training takes 60 hours. Email [email protected] for more information or visit its website.
Follow Natalie Walters on Twitter at @NatalieReporter.