YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus may very well release an outpouring of mental health and addiction issues, experts say.
Mental health and addiction diseases usually lurk in the shadows of health care, but since they have been cited as main reasons to reopen America’s economy, they have been thrust into the spotlight.
April Caraway, executive director of Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, Marcy Patton, executive director of Columbiana Mental Health and Addiction Services Board, and Duane Piccirilli, executive director of Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board, all report local crisis lines and provider agencies are seeing an influx of people seeking help during the pandemic.
While each county has a slight difference of heightened issues, all agree fear and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic is the common factor.
“I think our clients are feeling the same as the general public, the fear of the unknown. We’re hearing unemployment benefits are coming now, but there was a period of time when there wasn’t any income coming into the house and that’s very, very scary,” Piccirilli says.
Data from Help Network of Northeast Ohio shows that calls seeking assessments and referrals for information such as utility assistance, food pantries, services or phone numbers increased by 1,043 between February and April compared to the same time period in 2020. Crisis calls only have increased in that same time period by 61.
Trumbull County is seeing an increase in suicides as well as drug overdoses in the past couple months, Caraway says.
“We’ve been hearing from the coroner’s office that there has been an increase in overdose deaths because of COVID-19 and we think anecdotally people are struggling with some of the isolation,” she says.
In 2019, Trumbull County recorded 26 suicides. Through April 7, 10 people have died from suicide.
Caraway says a lot of calls have resulted in police going out for suicide ideation and individuals then getting inpatient or outpatient help if needed.
“We know people are struggling with depression and anxiety issues,” she affirms.
“May is typically a high month, so then add in isolation, lack of being around family and fear – regular people who don’t struggle with anxiety, fear and depression on a regular basis are struggling with all of those things.”
Columbiana County is also struggling with substance abuse and overdoses, Patton says.
“We’ve seen an increase in relapses and overdoses. A year ago we had 34 overdose deaths with a couple [of determinations] pending,” Patton says. “We’re already at 10 now and we’re only five months into the year.”
Mahoning County Public Health noted on a press release May 22 that the Ohio Department of Health has seen an increase in the number of patients presenting to emergency departments for suspected drug overdoses in the county.
Last year, Mahoning County had 97 confirmed overdose deaths and six suspected, a total of 103. Through April of this year, there were 33, with seven confirmed and 26 suspected. All deaths are preliminary as testing and investigation take time.
Trumbull’s Overdose Surveillance Report shows there were 89 overdose deaths, 78 confirmed and 11 suspected in 2019. Through April this year, 32 fatal overdoses have occurred with 17 confirmed and 15 suspected.
Piccirilli says the lack of in-person meetings for 12-step programs is problematic. Such meetings have been suspended due to the ban of gatherings of 10 or more people.
“Especially people new to recovery really need that support. There are Zoom meetings going on, but they really need that fellowship,” he says. “We’re doing the best we can to open this up, but we’re looking for guidance from the governor’s office.”
All 12-step meetings have offered virtual meetings, which Caraway says were seamless for many younger people skilled in technology.
But online meetings aren’t working for people as well in Columbiana because they lack access to the technology or do not have internet service, Patton says.
“It’s hard to predict, but we are expecting an increase in problems coming out of this,” she continues. “As people get back into their routines and back to jobs and things like that, some of the patterns and the things they have done during this lockdown are going to have negative effects on them. So, we’re kind of preparing for a surge.”
As Ohio businesses begin to reopen, Caraway says it will help people to get back into a structured routine.
“I think it’s so important for people to go back to work when businesses reopen. The routine of getting back to work, the knowledge that income is coming back in is critical for people’s mental health.”
The three directors say it’s unfortunate that the pandemic has brought mental health issues to the forefront, but they hope the attention continues.
“The biggest factor that everyone needs to focus on is what’s happened on the positive side of COVID,” Caraway says.
“The family unit has become stronger. People have slowed the pace and realized what’s important and what we can leave on the wayside and not jump right back into because it will take away time caring for one another.”