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‘it’s easy to overlook the impact of COVID-19 on people with serious mental-health issues’

By JULIE WHITEHEAD / Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Cortney Hood of Tupelo knows the coronavirus pandemic is rattling her. She can see it in her daily routine. 

“My anxiety manifests more at turning off all the lights because that costs money, making everyone gets off the internet since that costs money, checking the cabinets 10 times a day, checking the freezer,” said the 45-year-old mother of five.

“In the back of my mind is whether we can ever go to the grocery store again.”

It’s the same sort of fears mental health center workers across the state are having for themselves and their patients like Hood. 

In ordinary times, Mississippi has struggled to meet the needs of its people with mental health issues, a situation that led to a federal lawsuit and a judge’s ruling in September that the  state had failed to provide adequate community-based services and to appoint a special master to ensure the needs of this population are met.

MCIR reported in September that Mississippi’s Department of Mental Health data show that almost 91,000 Mississippians experienced a serious mental illness in 2017 that interfered with their life activities.

Estimates by Mental Health America in its 2020 report show 420,000 Mississippians have a diagnosable mental, intellectual or emotional disorder. Of those, 230,000 said their needs were unmet by existing mental health services, according to the report. Estimates of 42,000 children and teens have had at least one depressive episode with 16,000 having their needs unmet by providers in the state, the report found.

Now, mental health center workers have a new hurdle to overcome – the coronavirus.

D.J  Jaffe, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org, Writes in the March 25 issue of  National Review, that some individuals  with  serious mental illness “may have lost touch with reality or any social network that can help them address the virus, or they may be afraid of doctors.”

“In these circumstances, it’s easy to overlook the impact of COVID-19 on people with serious mental-health issues, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Without strong and immediate action, the severely mentally ill could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 and place themselves and others in danger,” Jaffe writes.

Inventory your mental health

Gulf Coast Mental Health Center executive director Stacy G. Miller says staffers at her facility in Gulfport are in need of N-95 masks to safely interact with patients and each other. Region 11 Mental Health Center Executive Director Sherlene Vince in McComb says she and her staff are running short on cleaning and sanitizing supplies.

But all centers are continuing to do their best to provide services per the CDC guidelines, said Russ Andreacchio, executive director of Weems Mental Health Center in Meridian. That can look like taking advantage of telehealth services as often as possible as well as cleaning and sanitizing the facility.  “We are ready to continue to provide services to our clients throughout this time,” Andreacchio said.

To protect patients and employees, patients are pre-screened for symptoms over phone the day before the appointment and again upon arrival, said Adam Moore, director of communications for the state Department of Mental Health. The 24-hour hospitalization and stabilization units are not accepting visitors and take daily temperatures of staff and patients. Large group programs have temporarily closed. Other groups maintain less than 10 people at a time. Telehealth is being utilized by providers. Leadership meetings are conducted daily via phone conference. Staff who are sick should not report to work. Staff that may present with symptoms or exposure should stay home until symptoms resolve and are well for 14 days.

Mobile crisis units are still available. No one interviewed would say if there has been an increase in calls for their use.

At this time, COVID-19 has not been detected in any of the state mental hospitals, Moore said.  But protocols are in place in case that happens. “As with other illnesses that may occur while someone is receiving treatment in a behavioral health program, the treatment plan will vary based on the individual and the illness.” Moore said. Temperatures are checked daily in DMH state-run facilities to look for the most obvious symptom of the illness, Moore noted.

“If needed, DMH programs will work with their local medical providers to transfer a patient to the environment that offers the most appropriate level of treatment. In the event a positive case of COVID-19 is detected at a DMH program, DMH will follow guidance from the Mississippi State Department of Health Office of Epidemiology in determining the best course of action. Each case will be assessed individually.” Moore continued. 

These mental health professionals stressed that taking an inventory of your mental health was important during this time. 

Vince noted that finding a supportive person to help you through a symptom flare is an essential part of any self-care plan. Miller said, “Remain social while socially isolating. As mental health care moves to telemedicine, the best medicine can be reaching out to friends and family through telephone and maintaining a sense of connection. A positive perspective on a situation can change outcomes and help protect an individual’s mental health.”

‘I lie awake at night for hours’

Hood said she put in a call to her doctor to see if she needed to tweak her meds in any way during this time, noting that her depression and anxiety were worsening. “I have not been sleeping at night. I lie awake at night for hours and replay numbers, information from the day, budgets, supplies, what if, what if, what if!  I find myself, several times a day, having trouble breathing.” Hood said.

Her doctor added the  anti-seizure  drug gabapentin to her existing prescriptions of Cymbalta and Buspar, which treat anxiety and depression.  She was waiting for it to be approved by her insurance company. “I’m sure everyone is calling their doctor and asking for a Xanax salt lick for their kitchen right now,” Hood said. 

Hood, who carries diagnoses of clinical depression and anxiety, said that her goals of maintaining a routine, trying to stay busy, doing small projects, and not overwhelming herself were helping her get through the days of mothering her five children, ages 17, 15, 13, 10, and 4, who are all off from school. 

She recommends not staying in the bed, not binging on Netflix, and not staying up for all hours of the night. 

“Stay busy, whether it’s reading a book, weeding flowerbeds, or dusting the furniture,” Hood said.

This story was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to inform, educate and empower Mississippians in their communities through the use of investigative journalism. Sign up for our newletter.

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