Health professionals address increasing need for mental health services amidst pandemic and holidays

Pre-pandemic, the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 64% of people with mental illness report holidays make their condition worse. So, it is no surprise that local health professionals traditionally see an increased need for mental health services through the holidays. However, this year, it is expected that need will be compounded by the stressors of the pandemic.


“I believe we'll see an even higher increase in need for services throughout this month,” says Jennifer McNally, Program Director for Isabella County Services at Community Mental Health for Central Michigan. “We tend to see our biggest increase in need for services after the beginning of the year, after the holiday time settles down because they’re around family members; but, this year being that they can't be around them, I think that we'll see that happen sooner.”


64% of people with mental illness report holidays make their condition worse.

- National Alliance on Mental Illness

Vickie Evitts, Emergency Department Nurse Manager at MidMichigan Medical Centers in Mt. Pleasant and Gratiot, also expects to see more of an increase in the number of patients who present to the Emergency Department with a behavioral health crisis in the coming weeks.


“It is pretty normal around the holidays that we see people with depression, behaviors, substance abuse, or alcohol abuse increase,” says Evitts. “This year with COVID and the holidays, I fully intend to see an increase in those types of patients that we see.”


Mental health professionals across the nation have been dealing with the impact of the pandemic for the majority of 2020. According to a recent study by the National Council for Behavioral Health, 52% of behavioral health organizations have seen an increase in the demand for services.


Furthermore, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was released in August reveals the pandemic has had a significant impact across all demographics with over 40% of survey respondents reporting at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition. Additionally, the data showed that over 25% of those ages 18-24 have “seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days”.


The Emergency Department at MidMichigan Medical Center – Mt. Pleasant has rooms specifically set up to care for patients having a behavioral health crisis, which are barren of any instruments or tools that could be used for self-harm.

Among standard treatment rooms, the emergency department at MidMichigan Medical Center – Mt. Pleasant also features rooms that are designed to treat those facing a behavioral health emergency.

“Patients are close to the nurse's station so we're able to keep a better eye on them or we may assign a staff member to be right in the room with them because of the level of security they may need,” says Evitts.


Providing that extra level of care for patients to keep them safe is critical; however, it takes on-your-feet action by the Emergency Department staff, who sometimes need to be flexible with staffing assignments or even make a call to the Shift Manager at the Gratiot facility to see if they have extra staff in order to ensure someone can sit with the patient.


Additionally, while Evitts expects to see more patients through the holidays, it is difficult to plan for that from day-to-day.


“It's not like an inpatient floor where you can plan for admission,” she says. “This is what's going to come in is going to come. The door can open and 15 people can walk in or the door can open and one person can walk in.”

Patients presenting with a behavioral health emergency at MidMichigan Medical Center – Mt. Pleasant are cared for close to the nurse’s station in the Emergency Department; or, a staff member might sit in the room with the patient.

As families continue to face the financial, emotional, and social stresses of the pandemic during the approaching holiday season and beyond, Evitts and McNally say there are a variety of resources available.


“We still are offering four short-term counseling sessions for anybody within our community,” says McNally. “So that’s regardless of what the need is, we would offer those four sessions to anybody that's looking for that… And then we rolled out the myStrength program.”


The myStrength program is an easy-to-use online tool that offers personalized information to help with mental health. After completing the brief Wellness Assessment and creating a profile, myStrength generates a home page for you. You can work on eLearning, explore articles and videos, or get inspired by a daily quote.


“There are all sorts of different resources on the myStrength app to help,” says McNally. “There's evidence-based mindfulness for anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy, there's depression tools with behavior activation, there's information about substance use disorders, chronic pain. Basically anything with mental health or substance use, there's some physical medical health information on there people can access resources for. It has questionnaires and activities for people to do. So it's a really interactive app.”


For those having a behavioral health crisis, Evitts says they can present to the Emergency Room or a call can be made to 911 to so they can help get the person to a safe environment.


During this time, it’s also important to try looking out for one another as much as possible as well. If you’re concerned about the mental health of your friend, family member, or neighbor, there are things you can do to help – even though COVID-19 makes asking those people to come out to dinner or dropping by with a couple of friends to check in difficult.


Mental health resources:

  • Community Mental Health of Central Michigan: 989-775-5938
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (available 24/7): 1-800-273-8255
  • National Suicide Prevention text line: 741741 text TALK
  • Michigan PEER Warmline: 888-733-7753

McNally says it’s important not to rely on social media to tell you how someone is doing; and, one of the most important things you can do, difficult as it may be, is to be upfront and ask the hard questions.


“Ask people, straightforward and directly, ‘Are you feeling depressed? Are you feeling like you don't want to live anymore? Do you want to kill yourself?’ Asking those questions directly, as hard as they are, is the most important thing to do versus, ‘Hey how are you feeling? You know, you don’t look so good’ type of thing,” she says.


Evitts says it’s important to follow up with someone if you’re concerned as well – not to necessarily just take one, “Yeah, I’m ok” answer and be good with it.


“People who are in crisis mode or need that help sometimes tend to be in a sense of denial because they don't want to say something's wrong,” she says. “They don't want to admit that, ‘I'm not handling the pandemic very well. I'm taking more medications than I need.’ Or ‘I'm drinking more than I need’ because they don't want anyone to know there is something wrong.”


If someone does say something is wrong, see what you can do to help.


“Do they need you to call someone to help them? If they're dealing with a crisis worker, do you have permission to call, or a therapist, or behavioral health programs? Do they give you permission to call and reach out to that case manager say, ‘Hey, I'm concerned’ because maybe that case manager has a different rapport or that crisis worker has a different rapport with this person… If you're truly concerned that something is going to happen, I would let them know that you're going to call for help and make that 911 phone call and get an ambulance there or call that crisis worker and say, ‘Somebody needs to get over there and check on this patient.’”


For your own mental health, one of McNally’s tips is to be aware of what media you’re taking in and how much of it – perhaps taking time to turn off the news, put down the phone, and watch a funny movie or simply do something that will bring you more joy than distress.


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