While the pandemic will be remembered as a major public health crisis, it was a significant mental health emergency as well.
The Kaiser Family Foundations says 4 in 10 adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic. That’s compared to 1 in 10 in 2019.
Michelle Calvert is the director of quality and strategic innovation at Comcare, a community mental health center that provides services in Sedgwick County.
She talked with Tom Shine and The Range about what Comcare has experienced since the pandemic began; when people should seek treatment, and what comes next for mental health as the pandemic winds down.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Tom Shine: In the first few months (of the pandemic), case calls went down, referrals went down, everything kind of settled down.
Then since July, you've seen a steady increase again of more cases. What … are typical things you're seeing since July?
Michelle Calvert: Our overall trends since the pandemic started is just people aren't reaching out for help overall. We're seeing folks come in who have greater mental health needs, who just are mentally sicker. We're seeing an increase in aggression, increase in psychosis. So we're just seeing this huge need that is starting to bubble over.
Why aren't they seeking help if it's out there?
There's a huge stigma associated with mental health and asking for help.
Still after all these years?
Still after all these years. There is just so much associated with mental illness that is negative And we really want to encourage the community to say, ‘Hey, if you're not doing OK, ask for help. If you need support, ask for help.’
And there are people here 24 hours a day that want to help you.
How do people know when it's time to seek treatment? I think all of us have a day where we feel kind of down in the dumps or blue. What's the difference between that and a serious mental health problem?
We know it's time to reach out for help when somebody is feeling like their depression, their anxiety, the things that they're struggling with, is starting to impact the way that they live. So I know it's a little bit cliché to say live, laugh, love, but when your mental health is impacting the way you live, so you're struggling with going to work or functioning as you normally would. If you're struggling with relationships; you're struggling to find joy and things that you would typically find joy in. Those are the times that you need to reach out for some help.
What lessons have the pandemic taught us about treating mental health?
So I think that the pandemic has really taught us to look out for each other, to be aware of what's going on. And it's really helped us to see that we need to support each other as much as we possibly can.
We're hopefully nearing the end of the pandemic. We're certainly taking the first steps to get there, but I would assume that mental health issues are going to continue for some time. Is that a fair assessment?
I think absolutely right. Mental health issues are going to continue for quite some time. And I anticipate that they will get worse before they get better.
I will say, though, that national research does show that after a natural disaster, we tend to see reduction in suicidal thinking and suicide attempts. However, that same research suggests that there is often an increase in distress, depression, anxiety and PTSD following those disasters.
I think that the pot is really just boiling with mental health right now, and the pandemic has just turned up the heat.
If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact Comcare 24 hours a day at 316-660-7500 or at sedgwickcounty.org/comcare.