Georgia mental health agency sees uptick in need as pandemic continues

Georgia's State Capitol.

As Georgians head into the sixth month of a pandemic that has infected more than 260,000 residents, killed about 5,000 and left hundreds of thousands looking for work, more people are turning to the state’s mental health programs for help.

The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities operates the state’s Crisis and Access Hotline, which often is used to help those who are considering harming themselves.

When Georgia’s businesses and schools began to shut down to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, calls to the hotline were on par with 2019 — averaging about 500 calls or texts per day between mid-March and early June.

“We did not see an increase in call volume for some time but are beginning to see some increase in volume (now) as compared to last year,” said Angelyn McDonald, a department spokeswoman.

As the pandemic stretched into June, about the time the number of reported COVID-19 cases began to spike and the unemployment rate was still about 7.6% — nearly double the pre-pandemic rate — calls began to increase.

On June 20, about 800 calls came through the crisis hotline — the most so far this year. That same day in 2019, the hotline received about 400 calls. The hotline averaged about 650 calls and texts a day from July 26 to Aug. 25 this year. That’s more than 100 calls above the average over the same period in 2019.

In April, the department launched a COVID-19 Emotional Support Line as part of the Georgia Recovery Project, which provides crisis counseling to help Georgians with pandemic-related mental health concerns.

That line, staffed by department employees trained in crisis counseling, has received a total of 900 calls since its inception.

Early in the pandemic, many Americans went to the internet to learn about anxiety and panic attacks, a recent study found, spiking around major announcements such as when the number of coronavirus-related deaths jumped from 1,000 to 2,000 within 48 hours or when President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.

Google searches have leveled off since April. Researchers at the Qualcomm Institute’s Center for Data Driven Health at the University of California, San Diego, said internet searches stopped increasing “perhaps because Americans have become more resilient to the societal fallout from COVID-19 or because they had already received whatever benefit they could from searching the internet.”

In Georgia, the Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disabilities — like most state agencies — had to cut its budget by 10% to offset the loss of state revenue due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Many of those cuts, which took effect July 1, were to administrative staff.

That puts additional stress on the state’s mental health system, which caters mostly to lower-income patients who may not have access to private counseling through their health insurance, said Jewell Gooding, the executive director of Mental Health America of Georgia.

And Gooding said there are many ways the pandemic can affect Georgians who may also have mental health or addiction issues.

“Everybody is dealing with this pandemic in some form or fashion,” Gooding said during a recent discussion with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “When it comes to this trauma — this collective trauma that we are experiencing — your brain is so fragile. As powerful as it is, it is the most fragile organ in our body.”

Various behavioral health groups have expanded their use of virtual meetings and webinars to allow people who are experiencing stress and anxiety amid the pandemic to feel a sense of community. And some counselors have had their clients participate in virtual therapy.

Mental health advocates are encouraging those who are anxious about the pandemic to find ways to connect with other people, whether it be by picking up the phone or video chatting with friends.

Mental Health America of Georgia, has been encouraging people through webinars to try things such as managing stress levels by setting aside a daily “worry hour” to contemplate the things that are beyond an individual’s control, practice relaxation techniques and maintain a healthy diet.

“I just encourage people (to) practice self-care daily,” Gooding said. “We do have a lot that we are experiencing, so taking time for yourself (and) self-compassion is very important during this time.”

To reach the COVID-19 Emotional Support Line from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., call 866-399-8938.

To reach the Georgia Crisis and Access Line, available 24 hours a day, call 800-715-4225.

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