Calarco's Corner

Mental health in the wake of COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to confront numerous obstacles. On top of keeping ourselves, friends, and loved ones safe, people have had to contend with financial and physical hardships. Many people have also faced a more personal struggle: their mental health. 1 in 5 Americans experiences mental illness.  For too long, millions of Americans have suffered in silence. This World Mental Health Day, observed on Oct. 10, is an opportunity to shine a light on the importance of mental well-being and focus on initiatives to ensure that everyone has access to comprehensive care.

Our lives have changed considerably since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Forced isolation and social distancing have revealed a mental health crisis in America that many health professionals already suspected. In the past year alone, anxiety rates in young adults nearly tripled to 43.5 percent; reports of moderate-to-severe depression also rose to over 30 percent of the adult population. The Suffolk County Department of Mental Health operates two mental health clinics that serve approximately 500 people each month. There were also over 1,300 clients being served in opioid treatment program services in the last year.

While people will go to a doctor for a physical ailment, stigma and shame often prevent people from seeking treatment for mental illness. On average, it takes 11 years for an individual to seek help. One of the main reasons is the lack of treatment options. Approximately 10.9 percent of adults with mental illness do not have insurance coverage, and 55 percent of counties in the U.S. do not have a single practicing psychiatrist. That is why the Suffolk County Legislature has invested in creating a comprehensive website dedicated to listing all the resources the county offers for mental illness, addiction, substance abuse, and prevention and recovery resources.

Law enforcement is often the first agency to respond to a mental health crisis. Last year, the New York State Department of Health coordinated with the Suffolk County Police Department and the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department to train their members to practice the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) model.  The CIT program trains officers on ways to better recognize and respond to a behavioral health issue. CIT reduces the rate of arrests of people with mental illness and increases the likelihood of receiving the treatment they need.

For many, the pandemic and its secondary stressors have wrenched the fabric of society. It has meant the loss of financial security and emotional support. Unfortunately, this has meant a record increase in drug use and overdose deaths across the country. Ninety-three thousand people died from overdoses last year, the highest in our nation’s history. In the past decade, Suffolk County had lost 3,000 people to overdoses.

Tragically, only 1 in 5 people who require treatment receives it. Even those in treatment faced extreme challenges this year; as quarantine restrictions were put in place and support groups moved to online settings, drug rehab centers across the country saw appointments drop by 20 percent during the pandemic.

Earlier this year, Suffolk County reached a multi-million-dollar settlement with pharmaceutical companies and opioid manufacturers over their role in perpetuating the opioid crisis. Although this money can never replace the lost lives, settlement funds will be used to prevent future families from having to go through the heartache of losing a loved one to opioid addiction.

The pandemic has exacerbated feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. You are not alone. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental illness or substance abuse, help is available. Below are several local resources for those who are struggling. Together we can heal and rid society of the stigma associated with mental illness.

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