How Is The Pandemic Impacting Mental Health?
Because it’s Mental Health Awareness Month, Rumble reached out to someone who deals with behavioral health issues in Western North Carolina. Becca Swanger, the Jackson County Director for Meridian Behavioral Health Services, took the time to answer some questions about how people are coping with mental health during the pandemic.
Rumble: The pandemic had a major impact on providers and services, now that we're getting somewhat back to normal, what do services at Meridian look like right now? What's still virtual, what's being done in person?
Swanger: Meridian never stopped doing in person services; especially for our community based program such as Intensive In Home, Peers Assisting in Community Engagement and Assertive Community Treatment teams. These services are paramount to keeping our most vulnerable populations in the community and out of hospitals, foster homes, or long term care facilities. So these programs are continuing to operate and increase our face-to-face time as much as safely possible.
Last Spring we converted the majority of our outpatient services to tele-health and have been very fortunate to be able to build the necessary infrastructure for both staff and clients for this to be successful. That being said, we continue to increase safety measures in the offices (such as HEPA filters, and air purifiers in each office) to begin increasing our services provided in person; while still offering a virtual option for those who need it. In the last 4-6 weeks we began piloting in person groups for each county; which has been an exciting venture for both staff and clients; instilling hope in all of us that our communities are moving in the right direction!
Rumble: How has the pandemic impacted the number of people needing behavioral health services? Are more people reaching out for help for the first time?
Swanger: When the pandemic first hit, everyone hunkered down for some time. I don’t think anyone anticipated it lasting this long or having such a profound impact on our lives. So for a while, we saw a decrease in folks accessing services. As time went on; we started seeing more need but many were still scared to access services. That's where tele-health/telephone options became so integral. It took time for the infrastructure; both internally and in our communities, to catch up with that. Once it did though; that’s when we started seeing big jumps in people getting connected. As restrictions started relaxing and more folks got vaccinated, the number of people we serve continues to go up. The "survival mode" a lot of us experienced started to subside, resulting in significant increase in acuity. Kind of like when you first get an injury. You may be numb or not feel it at first; then all of a sudden the pain hits. That's kind of where we are right now. The numbness has worn off and now we are feeling everything. Its overwhelming and people don't know what to do with that. Hopefully this will ring true for some of your readers and they'll realize this is completely normal!
Rumble: Have there been any changes that have made accessing services easier for people during this time?
Swanger: Believe it or not; we have seen more benefits from having tele-health and telephone options than drawbacks. There will always be populations or presentations that don't lend themselves to tele-health; but from my perspective as the Jackson County director; our reach is much farther than ever before. We've been able to bridge gaps in a way that wasn't possible previously. There can be so many barriers to accessing services — transportation, work schedules, childcare, internet access, finances, etc. — and having virtual/telephone options has closed that gap for so many of our folks. We are hopeful the COVID-19 service provision flexibilities will continue long after the pandemic is over to best meet the needs of our communities.
Rumble: How has the pandemic impacted adults with addiction/in recovery from what you've personally seen?
Swanger: The pandemic was a complex traumatic event for everyone in the world. The fear, uncertainty, isolation, anger and hopelessness came in waves over and over again. That kind of trauma takes it toll on a person. So, yes we have seen an increase in substance use over this past year as folks have done what they needed to in order to survive. But we've also seen resiliency, camaraderie, creativity, perseverance and hope. People banded together to support each other in ways that I don’t think they believed they were capable of. These are things I remind myself of when I think about how many of our community members are struggling with addiction.
Rumble: How has the pandemic impacted children from what you've personally seen?
Swanger: The brain is pretty amazing in how it works. And the natural resiliency it gives children is something to be envied. As adults, we put up walls, think of the worst case scenario, etc. — all these ways to protect ourselves from harm but the truth is we are wired to thrive. If we stopped fighting ourselves; we'd learn that we can adapt to most anything. Children have absolutely been impacted by the pandemic. Their routines, social interactions and academics shifted drastically and mostly without warning. The pressures to perform academically to standards that no longer applied took is toll on their feelings of self worth and confidence. Personally, I don’t believe any child is "behind" no matter what the test scores say. Children learned more the past year than ever before; it’s just that they learned things that aren't in a book. But they learned. And they will thrive from what they learned- their innate resiliency will make sure of that! And until then we are here to help them and their families navigate this new world.
Rumble: How can people access services through Meridian Health? What is the cost?
Rumble: Do you have an emergency mental health hotline people can call?
Swanger: Meridian does have an after hours crisis line for our clients who are active in services with us. The line is manned by a licensed clinician in both adult and child services at all times and is provided to all clients once they are enrolled. Mobile Crisis Management is our catchment areas' crisis service for anyone in the community-even if they haven't gotten connected with a provider. They can be reached 24/7 at 888.315.2880.