Coronavirus anxiety

Denton County Public Health workers test residents for the novel coronavirus June 30 at the UNT Union Circle Parking Garage. In addition to the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic, area officials are seeing higher levels of anxiety and depression, along with increased suicide risks.

While Texans have had their eye on the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers and care providers say there is another crisis taking a toll: worsening mental illness that is crippling some residents in Denton County and across the state.

County providers have seen a spike in the number of people experiencing severe depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide attempts over the past few months, with mental health concerns exacerbated by pandemic stressors. Financial difficulties and increased mental anguish often go hand in hand, as an April white paper from the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, a nonpartisan organization that provides policy guidance on mental health in Texas, found. For every 5 percentage-point increase in the state’s unemployment rate each year, another 300 Texans would be lost to suicide, the study estimated.

The Texas unemployment rate peaked at 13.5% in April and averaged 8.1% in November — an increase of more than 5 percentage points from national averages in February.

Though there is around an 18-month lag time to getting statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on suicide, there are signs those estimates are on track to be proven true, Meadows President and CEO Andy Keller said. Data from a November survey by the CDC found that anxiety — along with depression, which is the biggest driver of suicide — is up more than 400% from a year ago.

Dr. Lisa Elliott, a psychologist and clinic manager for Cook Children’s Denton Behavioral Health Center, said cases have remained consistently higher since rising in May, with 70-85% of her patients having higher acuity levels that often translate to more severe instances of anxiety, depression and suicide risk.

“We had more suicide evaluations done in the month of September than I think in our history of the hospital, in our emergency room,” said Elliott, who is also co-chair of the United Way of Denton County’s Behavioral Health Leadership Team. “There’s not enough patient beds.”

The clinic also has seen an increasing number of issues among children, including elevated abuse cases and mental health struggles, Elliott said. In the North Texas area, the number of children admitted and treated after attempting suicide rose to 37 in September, the highest number since 2015, according to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.

Although economic stressors such as unemployment or a gap in wages due to illness may weigh more heavily on parents, children are facing their own barriers that could create concerns beyond the pandemic, Elliott said.

“Children definitely need structure, and they need healthy socialization, and when kids weren’t in school, that exacerbated problems for them — not to mention I’m sure it exacerbated issues at home as well,” Elliott said. “The other thing too [is] that facilitated way too much time on technical devices, whether it’s internet gaming or whether social media, both of which are not healthy and have long-term residuals. It’s just a very negative snowball effect.”

Children from families affected economically by the pandemic could face even worse long-term outcomes.

“I’m very concerned whenever unemployment runs out and whenever we have families that are being evicted, that’s only going to accelerate this even more and cause more and more stress,” Elliott said. “I really worry about our kids.”

Negative effects of large-scale disaster events have been shown to linger, as researchers witnessed after hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, Keller said. With COVID-19, stressors such as the loss of loved ones and isolation from family members will likely lead to higher instances of post-traumatic stress disorder later on.

“It actually predisposes people, especially young people who lose parents or siblings, to more risk of being traumatized later and sort of removes some of your resilience, and those effects lasts for years,” Keller said.

Diminished mental health also can lead to more immediate risk factors. A November study from The Lancet medical journal found that people with depression and other mental health illnesses are at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And the connection is bidirectional: Those who have had the coronavirus are at a higher risk of anxiety and dementia, the report revealed.

Pam Gutierrez, executive director of Denton County MHMR, said that although the number of clients being seen at the clinic has not exceeded past years’ numbers, the influx has remained steady and the clinic also has begun seeing more patients for substance abuse since the pandemic began. With more people using alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms, the clinic has implemented group and individual counseling for substance abuse, which Gutierrez said there are limited resources for in the county.

One barrier to developing resources to meet increased need is a lack of funding. A 2013 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation ranked Texas 48th in mental health expenditures among U.S. states.

At MHMR, Gutierrez said several programs, including psychiatric triage and a crisis residential house in Krum, are supported by federal funding, which ends in October 2021.

“There’s so many people that need help in our county,” Gutierrez said. “If we don’t have the funding, we can’t treat the people that need it the most. The county provides funding for us; they are very supportive of what we do, but our state Legislature has to continue providing funding for us as well.”

Wherever people turn for treatment, Gutierrez said the most important thing is that they don’t self-isolate.

“It’s so important to talk to someone, if it’s a friend or family member, just reach out to someone,” Gutierrez said. “There’s so many people that want to help and that truly do care.”

The MHMR Crisis Hotline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-762-0157, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached anytime at 1-800-273-8255.

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