The COVID-19 pandemic has brought mental health issues to the fore.
But as more and more people are willing to admit their struggles, providing mental health services has become a major challenge.
Dr. Robert Shulman, director of clinical services and acting chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Rush University School of Medicine, said he has seen a “tremendous need” for services since the pandemic began.
“I think our emergency departments are busier than ever with people with behavioral health issues,” Schulman said.
The provision of mental health services has also become a major issue in Chicago’s mayoral race. Some of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s challengers have criticized her decision not to reopen a mental health clinic closed by her predecessor, Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
A 2019 mayoral candidate, Lightfoot pledged to reopen clinics but now supports the approach of using a network of nonprofits to help deliver care.
Schulman said he has noticed an increasing number of children showing up in emergency rooms exhibiting self-harm and substance abuse.
“When we talk to community providers, especially those who work with children and adolescents in the community – therapists, psychologists, social workers – they all say that over the past few years their practice has changed It’s full,” Schulman said. “They can’t keep up with the calls; they can’t keep up with the demand.”
Even before the pandemic, Schulman noted that referrals to teens were on the rise because of the influence of social media and the stress it puts on children and teens.
“We’ve seen an increase in suicidal ideation and self-harm,” Schulman said.
While the data has yet to be released, Schulman believes we’ll see a lingering impact of the pandemic on children’s development.
“My personal feeling is that when these kids hit adolescence, we’re going to see more anxiety attacks and panic attacks,” Schulman said. “We’re probably seeing more things like obsessive-compulsive disorder, picking disorders, germophobia, and more. Now, we’re seeing delays in maturation and learning.”
At NAMI Chicago (NAMI stands for National Alliance on Mental Illness), CEO Alexa James said calls to the organization’s Chicago helpline have surged by more than 200% during the pandemic.
“During COVID, we’re 311 for this city,” James said.
She highlighted equitable access and the need to “enable people to use mental health services in a way that feels good to them”.
NAMI Chicago’s mission is to “engage, educate, empower and equip” people with the tools they need in the recovery process – but the reality depends on the needs of the individual.
Some people may need therapy, some may need crisis intervention, and others may just need talking, James said.
“We have a very sophisticated platform, we certainly have an ingestion structure, but our ingestion is in the form of narrative, so we’re really letting people lead the conversation,” James said.
One thing she’s thankful for is that the pandemic seems to be boosting the conversation around mental health.
“Thank God, I’m grateful and hopeful!” James said. “Because we are in the middle of the biggest mental health crisis we have ever seen. The conversation has changed because more and more people are identifying symptoms of mental health problems and we know that the main way to reduce and remove barriers and stigma is to stand Come out and talk about it.”
Part of advancing the conversation may just be changing the way we talk about it.
Schulman said he doesn’t like to talk about “mental health,” but rather about “difficulty” and “health.”
“As a society,” Schulman said, “we’ve forgotten how to stay healthy.”
Regarding the impact of the pandemic, Schulman said that rather than talking about “anxiety,” he prefers to describe the issue as “trauma.”
“People can talk about trauma without the whole mental health stigma,” Schulman said. “We’re talking about community, so I think if we take a social approach to what’s happening to us and put In the background, (the pandemic) is traumatic for everyone, and people experience trauma and respond to trauma in different ways.”
Shulman believes that in order to meet the growing demand for services, we need to think differently about how we deliver this care.
“We’re actually going to have to innovate a little bit and change our model of care so we can reach more people,” James said. “The venue for these things can be pretty much anything. … If structured in a certain way, we can actually provide care in churches, libraries, barbershops and beauty salons. So, we can go to the community, we can go to any community … and actually build a different model of treatment than what we do today.”
Call the NAMI Chicago Helpline: 833-NAMI-CHI (626-4244)
Dial the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988