Washtenaw County grapples with COVID-19's "perfect storm" for mental health

In Washtenaw County, Sarah Hong says "very few are being spared" from the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Hong is the chief program officer at Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County (JFS) and a clinical social worker at THRIVE, JFS' clinical counseling practice, where demand for services has increased.


"We're seeing a surge in interest from folks who are able to chug along and cope pretty well with daily stressors," she says. "For people who were just shy of a need, COVID-19 has been a perfect storm."


The list of stressors people face is long, but some obvious triggers at play are social isolation, threats to physical health, financial losses, and overall uncertainty. Hong points out that some people are not sleeping as well due to stress, while others could be burdened by blurred lines between their work and personal lives if they have to work from home.


"There are others still who are grieving long distance [and] unable to be bedside for their loved ones or participate in mourning rituals that could be comforting and significant," Hong says.


The unsurprising result: an uptick in stress, anxiety, depression, and other negative implications for the mental health of Washtenaw County residents.


Millage provides for improved response


Trish Cortes, executive director of Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH), says there's no doubt the pandemic has taken a toll on county residents. But some of the impact is being buffered by the mental health and public safety millage that county voters approved in 2017.


"Other [community mental health] directors, even within our southeast region, have told me they're seeing the rates of people who are being hospitalized really doubling," she says. "These are residents who have had no prior contact with the community mental health system and who my colleagues are meeting for the first time in an emergency room."


Cortes says Washtenaw County is not experiencing the same increases. She attributes that to the fact that the millage allowed WCCMH to create a team of mental health professionals who are able to treat all residents regardless of their insurance, assisting with psychiatric evaluations, case management, and follow-up mental health treatment services.


"This July the number of requests for crisis contacts from our 24/7 mobile crisis team were at an all-time high. So we've really been hopping," Cortes says.


WCCMH recently released its 2019 impact report on millage-funded mental health investments. To date, funds have been allotted to a number of initiatives. A few key efforts include student-led anti-stigma campaigns in high schools, satellite stations in areas of the county that have been identified as having challenges accessing education and care, and crisis response training with law enforcement.


As the pandemic continues to unfold, WCCMH may pivot some of the millage funds to better meet residents' needs. Cortes says that conversation is just getting started with the millage advisory committee.


"We're very aware that we might have to reprioritize or shift some of what we had already lined up to due COVID-19," she says. "We know that we might do something different, but we don't know what yet."


Connecting across the community


Across the county, organizations like WCCMH and JFS have been going above and beyond to help residents get the mental health assistance they need. Many have added virtual offerings including telehealth services, telephone hotlines, and online support groups and webinars.


Kamilah Davis-Wilson, youth development and outreach manager at Ypsilanti's Corner Health Center, hopes that people will take advantage of opportunities for virtual connections. Response to Corner Health's June webinar entitled "COVID Happened – So Now What?" underscored the importance of such support.


"We've found that connecting with others virtually during COVID is really helpful, especially for young people," Davis-Wilson says. "Being able to talk with others, share concerns, and see that there are people and organizations working to keep them healthy and safe has been impactful."


Davis-Wilson explains that when the pandemic hit, youth were thinking about things like prom and basketball season. She says it's important to consider the sudden change, uncertainty, and stress young people are now facing.


"I always say that as adults we expect kids to get through and deal with their life situations, and we can't even get through it as adults. And with [the return to school], many of our youth are really struggling right now," she says.


Other demographics have been uniquely hard-hit during the pandemic. Both Cortes and Davis-Wilson agree that Black people and people of color have also been especially challenged. The pandemic and the national racial justice movement have exposed deep-seated inequities that contribute to these groups' wellbeing.


"It's hard, because we're all suffering in some way. We all need to remember that we're in this together. No one is immune to mental illness, and we all have to take care of each other," Davis-Wilson says.


Mental health awareness post-pandemic


Getting help with mental health issues – whether for oneself, a child, or a loved one – should never be delayed, says Barb Higman, office manager for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Washtenaw County (NAMI).


"One of the strategic goals of NAMI is to make sure that people get help early," she says. "It's like treating a sprained ankle. It will get worse if you don’t treat it immediately."


A good starting point is to understand that "it's okay to not be okay," Higman says. "Say that to yourself and to others with whom you feel safe enough to share your situation."


Higman says she's heard some people who have mental health issues say that now others will know what they've been going through every day. She hopes the pandemic will have a silver lining, engendering more understanding and compassion from society in general.


"We've come a long way, but stigma is rampant," she says. "Hopefully, as we are talking more and listening to each other more, we can change that."


Cortes shares the same viewpoint. One of the things she tells people is that the brain is an organ of the body just like the heart or lungs.


"As we move forward, we as a community need to think about mental illness as we would cardiac disease or any other illness of the human body that has no stigma attached," she says.

For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.


Photos courtesy of sources.