How has the mental health situation in Chicago changed since the beginning of the pandemic?
For the first time [employers] responded to their employees and their need for mental health support. I heard this many years ago, [a hospital] wanted to do research on the West Side on depression and heart disease, and they couldn’t get anyone to sign up. Then they changed their language to “stress and heart disease” and all these colored people signed up. When we started talking about [the pandemic] like “stress,” “loneliness,” and “isolation,” these words were much more digestible to people. What we saw with adults was higher levels of substance abuse and much higher rates of anxiety and depression, and much of that data comes from labor force surveys. With adults we also observe higher levels of relationship problems and home problems that are clearly directly related to our mental health.
What other signs that mental health has become more of a problem have you seen? Are more people looking for services?
Unfortunately, we have seen this a lot in very tragic incidents. We are seeing an increase in suicides, which is horrible. Bed capacity [at mental health facilities], especially for children, resources are sorely lacking. We know there are a lot of people who got into the emergency room. And in the beginning of COVID it was very difficult because people who were in a psychiatric crisis did not want to go to doctors for fear of getting COVID. Therefore, the number of calls to our helpline has definitely increased [833-626-4244]as well as increasing the duration of these calls, interesting.
Are there demographic groups that have had worse mental health experiences during the pandemic than others?
I recently read a report that we have seen a very high rate of nurses dying from suicide. So, health workers and veterans, in general. People who have never rested. We [at NAMI] I also haven’t stopped working, and when I pay another day at work, my colleagues say, “I’m literally taking you off the schedule next week.” It is unpleasant to be in a state of strong excitement while you are also struggling with your family.
A report by Lurie Children’s Hospital, released early last year, found that nearly half of Chicago’s parents went to their child’s primary care doctor with a mental health problem during the pandemic. Can you talk about how children in particular experience mental health problems?
Probably the worst thing for them. Anxiety is contagious, so how did we feel as parents and caregivers? Very anxious, very chaotic. And that in itself could be very traumatic, especially for children who were already prone to depression and anxiety. We have seen high rates of eating disorders. We also saw a huge disruption in the school system. Many students with IEPs – individualized education plans – received them [social] services at the school, and if they did not receive these things, they could not be increased. I think we are now seeing the result of this disruption with higher hospitalization rates, especially for children with developmental disabilities or intellectual disabilities who exhibit more behavioral problems. Fortunately for Chicagoans, our care service is a mental health resource exchange center. We are the only window. Our clinicians can get started [the process] by sending text resources and providing mental health coaching.
What other ways can parents help their children who are dealing with anxiety and depression?
Parents really need to ask their children what they need and I don’t think it starts at any particular age. Another thing is that we have to witness their pain. The worst thing that can be done is to punish them during a tantrum or during an emotional experience, because we, as adults, have tantrums and we get upset, and this is not a place to solve problems, right? We need to teach our children that sometimes things will be bad and you need to feel your feelings and as a parent, I will sit here with you.
Are there new programs for Chicago residents through city departments or through the National Alliance on Mental Illness since the beginning of the pandemic?
Our organization has doubled due to the demand of Chicagoans and the state. If people want to join NAMI, it’s incredibly helpful so we can continue to grow and create a system that really works for people. I tell people: go to these letters, consult with your legislators to see if you want to see more mental health allocations. The reason I say sacrifice is that one of the principles of well-being is compassion. One thing we told people during COVID: make sure you do something with compassion every day. Do something creative. Mental health is not just a call to the helpline; it is about enrolling in an art lesson, cooking or renovating your home. There is a misunderstanding that the only way to cure mental disorders is to look for a person who has a PhD, but we are all healers if we can find that empathy.
Many have not fully considered the collective trauma of the last two years. What might the mental health landscape look like if the pandemic continues?
Trauma symptoms often appear later than the event – often about six months after the injury. We need to be considerate of ourselves and the people around us; our own failures may manifest, and this may seem unrelated to the pandemic. However, we have already gone through this six-month period because this pandemic is so long. Now we need to make sure we create systems that can meet the opportunities when each individual needs support at any level. We must continue to insist that mental health is just as important as other chronic diseases.