Mental Health Calls Spike in the Pandemic in AL, Experts Say

Photo/National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Michael Wetzel

The Decatur Daily, Ala.


Mental health calls have increased across the Valley, and the root cause is likely COVID-19, according to crisis centers and emergency personnel.

“COVID-19 is on everyone’s mind and it is mentioned in many calls now,” said Connie Kane, clinical director at Crisis Services of North Alabama Inc. “We’re seeing an increase in calls because of isolation and loneliness, especially during the holidays, and COVID (played) a huge role this holiday season. Callers are expressing COVID fatigue. People are tired of wearing masks and being isolated. They’re ready for their world to return to normal.”

She estimated about 70% of the callers mention the pandemic in relation to job loss, financial troubles and loneliness. “About 10% worry about catching COVID and complain about people not wearing masks in public,” she said.

Officials with the Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama in Decatur said they are fielding more calls dealing with isolation because of the changes in the callers’ everyday routines.

“We’ve seen more people this year,” said Lisa Coleman, executive director of the center. “Children not going to school because of COVID-19 have lost that structure in their lives. Some people feel socially isolated. Clients are afraid to get out.

“We’re definitely having more phone calls, sometimes from people just wanting to talk to somebody.”

Cathy Fleming, rehabilitative day program coordinator for Mental Health Center of North Central Alabama, said about half of their calls are COVID-related.

“COVID has forced people to stay home. Some are having sleep problems, feelings of anxiety and depression, excessive worrying, headaches, physical pain,” she said.

She offered tips help ease the stress.

“We encourage people to stay connected to family and friends, especially when they are feeling lonely,” she said. “We want them to focus on positive things, follow a healthy diet and get exercise such as yoga. Take a break from television and social media, negative things that can increase your anxiety.”

Coleman said the center assists clients in connecting with crisis counselors who can help the clients build resiliency. She said the Alabama Department of Mental Health, with federal grant assistance for the Alabama Apart Together program, has established a crisis line to deal with just COVID-related mental health issues. The telephone number is 1-888-442-1793.

“We are currently receiving a dozen or so calls daily,” said Lisa Turley, director of Alabama Apart Together. “The majority of calls are regarding access to testing, and when and where one can obtain a vaccine.”

The program offers referral services; online support groups; educational materials for social distancing, quarantine and emotional wellbeing during the COVID-19 outbreak; and techniques for managing anxiety and stress.

“We offer all callers the opportunity to have a local AAT team member to provide further assistance and follow-up,” Turley said.

She said the information line began Dec. 17.

Kane said the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline office has provided her center’s phone and text-chat specialists with training on handling COVID-related calls, and has provided suggestions on how to calm callers’ anxieties about contracting the disease.

Jeanie Pharis, director of the Morgan County 911 dispatch center, said there was a marked increase in medical calls in December involving a possible suicidal situation. She said those types of calls jumped 47.8%, from 23 in December 2019 to 34 this December. The November numbers were flat with 38 in 2019 and 39 this November, she said.

Pharis said the calls related to possibly emotionally disturbed people also increased in December, from 174 in December 2019 to 191 this December, a jump of 9.8%.

Moulton Fire Chief Ryan Jolly also said his department is encountering more residential emergency calls because of the pandemic. He said his department’s overall calls are up 50 to 75 this year, especially since June.

“I can’t say they all are mental-health related, but calls involving full cardiac arrest related to COVID-19 have increased pretty significantly,” he said. “This virus is causing blood clots to form and leading to cardiac arrest.”

Since June, he said, the department is receiving about 10 more calls a month involving COVID-positive patients.

“We try to make those people feel comfortable,” he said. “When we arrive we find they’re worried what’s going to happen to them. They’re fearful about going to the hospital, especially those people with underlying conditions. They say they’re afraid they’ll get put on a ventilator and not come back home.”

He said his department has been fortunate to have only had one employee test positive for COVID-19 to date.

Nationally, a public opinion poll by the American Psychiatric Association in October showed 62% of Americans feel more anxious than they did in October 2019. APA officials said in the past three years the percentages of people who felt more anxious than they had the previous year ranged from 32% to 39%.

Seventy-five percent of those reporting anxiety said COVID-19 was the major factor.

According to a Brookings Institute report, the National EMS Information System saw a “sharp increase” in calls related to drug overdoses, mental health issues and in refusals to go to the hospitals by overdose victims in the past year.

— or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.


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