States look at mental health beyond the pandemic

By Phyllis Hanlon
July 14th, 2020
Jessica Pollard, Ph.D, director of Maine’s Office of Behavioral Health
Jessica Pollard, Ph.D, director of Maine’s Office of Behavioral Health

To date, the COVID-19 virus has exacted a tremendous toll on the nation’s economy, uncovered serious flaws in the health care systems, brought long-standing systemic racism to the forefront, and disrupted everyday life. Of paramount importance are the potential long-term effects on psychological well-being.

The New England states are taking measures to help ameliorate any adverse effects once the pandemic begins to wane. According to Jessica Pollard, Ph.D, director of Maine’s Office of Behavioral Health, her state has operated a number of crisis phone lines for several years.

In response to COVID-19 , Maine set up a “Warmline,” a resource for those having mental health conditions, but who are not in crisis, and wish to connect with certified individuals who can provide peer support, according to Pollard.

More recently, in collaboration with the Maine Psychological Association (MePA) and a group of other licensed mental health professionals, the state created a “Frontline Warmline” to provide psychiatric first aid to those who work most closely with those infected with the virus.

“We are taking a proactive approach in recognizing that there’s a lot of stress in responding to the pandemic,” said Pollard.

"When there is a reckoning to how little control we have, amazing things can happen.” - Rick Barnett, Psy.D, MA, MS, LADC, Vermont-based psychologist

Currently, the phone lines have experienced lower than expected call volume. Pollard attributes this situation to the excellent job local hospital systems have done in providing their own supports to staff. Although the phone lines might currently be under-utilized, the state will continue to offer them, she said.

Pollard encourages psychologists to pay attention in the coming months to an increased risk for overdose and substance use in their clients as restrictions ease and drugs become more readily available.

She pointed out the need for psychologists to become familiar with the psychological effects of disaster, an issue that is not often emphasized in clinical training.

While routines have been disrupted, once life returns to some pre-pandemic levels, clients may again experience adverse effects, according to Pollard. “We may see another wave when we return to our old routine. The end of the pandemic is not equal to the effects going away. Grief is common as people have lost jobs, income and, in some cases, loved ones. There is a fear of contracting the virus and of dying,” she said.

“Psychologists should be readying for a surge and be proactive. We should be building resilience in the general population. We think of the pandemic as a long and drawn out disaster with a lot of unknowns.”

The Connecticut Psychological Association (CPA) has held a number of meetings via Zoom to determine how to proceed and also has a lobbyist working on this issue, according to Elaine Ducharme Ph.D, ABPP, private practitioner in Glastonbury.

Additionally, CPA has established a helpline staffed 24/7 to offer free virtual psychological services to all frontline workers, including doctors, nurses, support staff and even funeral directors who are experiencing difficulties. More than 40 psychologists are available and each clinician provides three sessions and then discusses options for follow-up, if necessary.

In spite of the overwhelming disruption the pandemic has caused, Ducharme expects that most front line workers will recover relatively quickly. “In general, we humans are a fairly resilient group of people,” she said, although she anticipates some initial resistance to seeking help. “[They] may discover a few months down the road they are triggered by something…a death, a movie, a number of things, which could cause them to start having symptoms of anxiety or depression. They may experience physical symptoms, including fatigue, stomach issues and headaches and not understand why. But our minds and bodies are so intimately connected.”

Vermont-based Rick Barnett, Psy.D, MA, MS, LADC, noted that the country has reached a “peak of uncertainty” and many individuals might be experiencing a sense of being defeated. This way of thinking leads to an increase in self-destructive behavior, he said. “Overdose rates have increased and alcohol sales have gone through the roof. All addictions have increased. When people feel a loss of control, they turn to substances as a means of trying to maintain control.”

In spite of the “collective sense of defeat,” Barnett is hopeful that there may come a “collective sense of surrender.” He reported that following devastating events, such as world wars, people found new ways of connecting and coping. “When there is a reckoning to how little control we have, amazing things can happen.”

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