Even in the best of times, people seek out mental health services for help with the stress and anxiety of everyday living. So what happens during a year-long pandemic when people encounter additional angst caused by unemployment, food insecurity, school closures and the isolation and loneliness of sheltering in place?

Nationwide as well as in Solano County, COVID -19 has spurred many people to look for help with their mental health.

“The full impact of mental health issues associated with COVID is probably not yet known,” said Jerry Huber, director of Solano County Health and Social Services. “We know that business closures have had a significant impact. We are seeing increases within the context of public assistance programs. Our CalFresh for food insecurity grew immensely even in the first couple of months of COVID.

“People losing their jobs and the school closures have also had a significant impact on families. There are quite a few studies showing that isolation and loneliness have a significant impact on mental health. That is largely seen in people in nursing homes or assisted living.”

The lack of sports activities during this past year of COVD has also taken its toll.

“That has a big impact on a lot of social connectedness,” said Huber. “Particularly for youth it has had an impact on mental health.”

Although Health and Social Services does not see direct statistics concerning domestic violence, which are handled through the district attorney’s office, Huber said the number of cases in child protective services has jumped. That is an indicator of an increase in domestic violence.

“The issues of fear and loss of control not only associated with COVID but what has been happening with all the issues of social unrest in our community has just added to everything,” said Huber.

He noted that child abuse during COVID may be underreported.

“Most of the maltreatment is reported by schools,” he said. “But the teachers cannot see what is happening with students. Therefore they are not reporting. It’s another example of so many issues that it’s going to take a number of years before we really know the significance of behavioral health issues associated with COVID.”

Solano County Behavioral Health is one of the branches of the county’s Health and Social Services Department. Behavioral health has opened up a unique phone line during COVID called a warmline, to distinguish it from a hotline which is for emergency services.

The warmline (784-8539) is for anyone who may be experiencing stress, anxiety and/or feelings of depression while dealing with the daily struggles and disruptions in their lives due to COVID-19. Therapists listen and offer support and suggestions as well as referrals to the appropriate mental health of substance abuse services.

“I can safely say that we have had a call every other day since last March,” said Emery Cowan, mental health services administrator for the county. “It has shifted over time. In the beginning a lot of it was around fear of getting COVID and the anxiety was escalating because of the unknown. Then it started to shift to what about masks and personal protective equipment.

“But then it started becoming depression symptoms or anxiety symptoms. And now a lot of people are calling about reactions to the vaccine or questions about do I qualify sooner than other people for the vaccine if I have a certain issue or disability.”

The Behavioral Health department also has a line for suicide prevention (800-273-8255), for new mental health services (800-547-0495), for crisis stabilization, a 12-bed unit for acute care (428-1131) and substance use issues (855-765-9703).

Tracy Lacey, senior mental health services manager for the county who chairs the Suicide Prevention Committee, said that, surprisingly due to COVID, suicides in 2020 were down 20 percent from 2019.

There were two youth suicides in 2020 and referrals for children are starting to increase.

“With distance learning and school closures, referrals through schools to our access line were really low toward the end of last year and the beginning of this year,” said Lacey. “They are starting to pick back up. This is a product of the schools trying to contend with doing distance learning and educating young kids. They are having a hard time identifying when a young person or child might be needing additional services.

“But the referrals are starting to pick up, which is a good sign because that means they are identifying kids that need help. We anticipate that when kids come back to school a lot of them will self-refer.”

The Behavior Health department did not need to do specialized training for COVID.

“By the nature of what we do in behavioral health, a lot of our staff are used to working in crisis settings,” said Cowan. “We have provided a lot of support, training on wellness and taking care of ourselves, taking care of each other, taking care of the community. We’ve worked with the Public Health Department on scripts, especially for the warmline, what if somebody calls about this, how do you react, what do you do.”

One big shift was from in-person services to telehealth.

“That became a really big training process and learning curve for people because we hadn’t been used to using video platforms or phones to do services,” said Cowan. “We had to train everybody from psychiatrists to clinicians to front-desk staff on how to set up calls and how to engage people on the calls.

“One of the interesting revelations through this whole process is that now we are more familiar with telehealth services and it’s shown an improvement in access to services. People who normally would not have come back to the clinic or would have had a transportation issue to get to a clinic or to a program, now they are engaging by video or phone and we are able to serve more people in that way.”

Behavioral Health workers have had to guard their own mental health during COVID.

“There have been some morale issues,” said Lacey, “general fears around getting COVID, their families getting COVID… People are generally checking in and trying to help each other and wearing many hats if that’s what is needed.”

“There has been some turnover of staff,” said Cowan, “people who decided they couldn’t work full time because of childcare issues, workload issues. There is definitely a burnout issue as far as the stress of COVID on top of taking on extra work and then their own fears of what if I get COVID, what if my client gets COVID… People feeling like they have to juggle between their personal lives, their work lives, their school lives for families with kids or family members who are vulnerable. It’s hard to separate that from work sometimes, I think that’s natural with everybody in our helping field.”

Lacey said that the fact that staff is facing the same stressors as the people they serve is a positive.

“I think it helps our staff have empathy for the families they are working with,” she said, “because those families are going through the same thing.”

For more information on the county’s behavioral health services, visit www.solanocounty.com/depts/mhs/

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