The day-to-day impact of COVID-19 is spawning another health crisis many are afraid to even talk about. Social distancing and isolation is creating a hidden mental health crisis, says Donald Parker.
“Right now you can’t see into someone’s home. If they are sheltering in place or they’re quarantining, you don’t get to see the dysfunction,” said Parker, who is president of the Carrier Clinic, a psychiatric inpatient hospital and recovery center.
“We are about 20%, 25% over what we would normally be this time of year. Some of it may not be getting your treatment because you’re quarantined, and because you’re not getting your treatment you’re going to have a breakdown. Some of it may be the anxiety level is so high, you’ve lost your job. All of those things just do what’s called stress pile up. And when stress pile up gets too high, you go to coping or your disease, if you have one, manifests itself,” Parker continued.
New Jersey Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson says spikes in unemployment and the toll of COVID-19’s emotional strain has led to an influx of calls to the New Jersey Mental Health Care hotline.
“Our numbers have more than doubled since the beginning of the year. In January we had about 1,600 calls. In April we had more than 3,300 calls,” she said. “If you started feeling some congestion in your chest you would call the doctor. If you’re starting to feel some emotional concerns about your mental health, you should call us or your doctor because mental health and physical health are all part of our well-being.”
The trend isn’t isolated to New Jersey. According to a 17-page report by the United Nations, health officials warn that “the mental health and well-being of whole societies have been severely impacted by this crisis.”
“What anxiety says to us often is, ‘You don’t have enough. You’re not going to make it. You’re going to die. You won’t survive,” said Mental Health Association in New Jersey Call Center Services Director Betty Jean.
Jean says hotlines and tele-help are a way for those suffering with anxiety and depression to have access to therapy and coping tools.
“We find ourselves really providing a level of cognitive support, helping people to stabilize so that they can think through,” she said. “There is a vast number of New Jerseyans right now who have never experienced this level of stress and they’re calling us because they don’t know where to go. They’ve never had to deal with mental health issues. They’ve never had to seek out mental health support.”
Parker says reaching out to clinical management can be challenging, especially when isolated and adhering to social distancing, The apprehension is causing an increase of patients reaching a dangerous breaking point known as psychosis.
“The impact of all this is going to be an increase in what we call depths of despair, so it’s homicide, suicide and overdoses. If you look at the instruments of that, for instance in March gun sales went up 86% across the United States. Where are all those guns? Then you look at alcohol sales, astronomical increases and people who have trouble staying recovering are using alcohol as a secondary means of treating the anxiety that they’re experiencing,” he said.
As the number of COVID-19 cases begins to decrease, Parker is anticipating the number of people suffering from mental health effects to increase. That’s why he says there’s already plans in place to expand the clinic to make room for more patients.
And in the midst of it all, he says there is a silver lining.
“This pandemic has actually helped us continue to de-stigmatize behavioral health. We have had more and more people willing to talk about it,” Parker said.