Outreach, resources essential for mental health with COVID

Friday, March 19, 2021
Christina Wagner (left), Nicholas Heck and Karen Martoglio talk about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health during the latest Community Conversation on Tuesday.
Banner Graphic/BRAND SELVIA

The term “pandemic fatigue” has described people being worn out during COVID-19. The restructuring of everyday life has led to a yearning for getting back to “normal.”

Since the pandemic began progressing a year ago, mental health has emerged as a critical issue. It as such was the topic of the latest Community Conversation held virtually Tuesday evening.

The featured speakers were Dr. Christina Wagner, president of Mental Health America of Putnam County (MHAoPC) and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at DePauw University; Dr. Nicholas Heck, director of behavioral health at Putnam County Hospital; and Karen Martoglio, MHAoPC’s executive director.

Each presented perspectives on how stress related to COVID has taken a toll nationally as well as locally. Ultimately, a number of factors play into how people have been affected.

Wagner provided an overview of data from two surveys by the American Psychological Association (APA) and the U.S. Census Bureau. She emphasized that they have been conducted regularly since before the pandemic, and that trends can be better delineated.

Wagner described mental health in the United States during COVID-19 as the “second pandemic,” in that rates of related stress have been “extremely” high and will have long-term implications.

“When you survey most Americans, over 80 percent will say that they never imagined that we would living like this for a year,” she said. “So this data coming from January and February, I think, is really great at capturing the fatigue that we’re all experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Wagner provided that mental health professionals are seeing an increased rate or severity in stress, anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation and substance use for trying to cope with COVID-related stressors.

The Census Bureau reported that as of January, 41 percent of American adults had reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. This is a jump from 11 percent reported in the same survey from January-June 2019. Thirteen percent of adults reported increased substance use in June 2020.

According to the APA, one in four people considered essential workers (i.e. health care, postage, food service, etc.) have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder since the pandemic began. Seventy-five percent of those said they have not received enough emotional support.

Wagner provided that people of color have died from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates. According to the Census Bureau, 48 percent of all adults who reported symptoms of anxiety or depression last December were Black.

From Census data compiled last December, 49 percent of adults with children who reported symptoms of anxiety and depression were women. One in four women have considered leaving their jobs or reducing hours due to burnout and household responsibilities.

Among age groups, young adults 18-24 have reported the most distress during the pandemic. Wagner suggested this could be related to stressors such as their first year at college being remote or entering the volatile workforce. As such, they have reported more substance use and feelings of isolation.

Heck spoke to these challenges locally under the auspices of behavioral health. These efforts, as well as reaching out to the community, are a focus for the integrative program he leads at Putnam County Hospital.

With Heck as a psychologist, the program’s staff includes a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP), a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), a coordinator and one social worker who tackles different areas of education and treatment.

The program functions in a consultative role and serves as a liaison to different parts of the hospital and its outpatient primary care. It is also focused on getting patients where they need to go for treatment or intervention.

With the hospital and its primary care extensions — North Putnam Family Health Care in Bainbridge and Family Medicine in Cloverdale — able to provide mental health services, Heck believes that significant barriers related to stigma and geography are being addressed.

“We are not trying to replace the things that are already happening in our community mental health centers,” Heck said. “We’re trying to address the patients in this primary health care setting and be able to help them navigate to where they need to go.

“Ideally, where they need to go is moving up and increasing their functionality,” he added. “So hopefully we can help people, catch them earlier, give them skills, give them assistance, and prevent them from declining further and requiring higher levels of care that are more time-intensive and also more cost-intensive.”

From Heck’s perspective, Putnam County lacks a workforce of mental health professionals who can fully meet different needs. This needs more development in order to provide resources to those who need it. Martoglio shared additional data on mental health screening in the county through MHAoPC, which is dedicated to providing resources to the community. She noted that during the pandemic, more people locally have screened themselves for issues including depression and anxiety, both of which are the most prevalent.

In a dataset of 153 individuals, almost 78 percent reported that they had a mental health issue that was moderate to severe, while the rest had no symptoms or they were minimal to mild. The majority of those who have taken the screening have been women.

“The other thing that I think we have to keep in mind going out (is) just realizing what you can control,” Martoglio said about one’s environment and physical health. “Another thing that I talk to everybody about is really (maintaining) what you consume.”

However, she said COVID-19 has seen some positives, including changes to telehealth regulations allowing more access to virtual help. This has in turn reduced dependency on transportation and child care, which are other barriers.

Ultimately, all three emphasized recognizing that nobody is in this alone when it comes to mental health. Finding ways to “disconnect” from the news and technology and focus on self-care remains key.

Saying that “there’s always more that we can do,” Martoglio encouraged volunteering with MHAoPC to help the organization set goals for greater outreach in Putnam County.

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