In May, a 32-year-old man in West Palm Beach who was overcoming a decade-long battle with opioid and substance abuse died of an apparent overdose. As a nurse working with COVID-19 patients, he could no longer attend his recovery meetings in person, and the impact of the virus and isolation took its toll.
Mental health and addiction specialists are finding that drug relapses are on the rise because of loneliness, anxiety, boredom and the changing nature of social support so important for recovery and stability. The impact of the pandemic is similar for some people with mental illness diagnoses.
Studies have linked social isolation with adverse health consequences for everyone, including depression, poor sleep, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity. The pandemic poses a triple threat for many with mental illness: financial anxiety because of job loss, isolation, and fear about the virus itself. Social distancing may worsen already compromised conditions.
Locally, hospitals, mental health agencies and Collier County Sheriff’s office have noticed an increase in suicidal behaviors, calls for help, and Baker Acts/involuntary commitments due to the threat of self-harm or violence against others, often domestic. While suicide numbers for the past several months are not yet available, experts expect to see an increase in these, as well.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration saw a five fold increase at its National Helpline between the beginning and end of March. The Crises Text Line volume is up 40% in the pandemic to about 100,000 conversations a month.
In another study, 80 percent of those living with a serious mental health condition (such as bipolar and schizophrenia) report their mental health was worsening due to the pandemic and 47% without a mental health condition reported onset anxiety/depression.
But because of the virus, NAMI Collier County has had to temporarily close the Sarah Ann Drop-In Center (SAC)that has been a beacon of hope for 25 years for 400 people who visit the center annually. The center provides a confidential, warm, accepting and safe environment where people over the age of 18 with a mental illness diagnosis can participate in support groups and a variety of social and recreational activities.
Many of the chronically mentally ill who NAMI Collier County serves may not have the resources to get the help that they need. A lot of these patients depend on routines to manage their illness and that has been disrupted. They are often poor and vulnerable or in unstable living conditions. Coping skills they count on have been changed. Many suffer from paranoia and anxiety, increasing the likelihood of alcohol or drug use or relapsing into dangerous behaviors.
NAMI Collier County is on the frontlines trying to prevent these outcomes for the 16,000 clients we serve annually, reaching out more than ever to those who are struggling to providing them with resources, such as virtual meetings and support groups so that they are not alone and forgotten during this dual crisis of coronavirus and addiction or mental illness.
Our Emergency Care Fund is available to make sure that clients are getting the medications they need as well as adequate medical care, food and housing — basic human needs. We have stepped up efforts to provide housing to the homeless. Our staff has been assembling and delivering care packages including food, fresh produce and household supplies to more than 200 drop-in center members and families in our Health Under Guided Systems (HUGS) families that have children with behavioral health problems. The food distribution also allows us to check in on our clients and see if they have other needs.
Experts predict the pandemic will create a long-lasting mental health crisis for the entire population. For our clients already dealing with mental illness, the impacts are being felt now, and NAMI Collier County has stepped up to meet the needs of this hard-hit, overlooked population.
About the Author
Jessica Bennett, manager of business development for an inpatient psychiatric hospital, has worked in the mental health field for 17 years. She joined the board of NAMI Collier County in 2020. Learn more about programs and how you can get help or help at www.namicollier.org.