Local organizations predict surge in behavioral health crises in weeks, months to come

photo by: Journal-World File Photo

The Lawrence Memorial Hospital emergency room sign is shown in this file photo from 2008.

Many behavioral health leaders said they have not yet seen an increase in behavioral health crises in Douglas County due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but most anticipate a surge in the months to come.

“It’s not necessarily during a crisis that you see an increase in behavioral health crises but really months after or even a year after,” said Derrick Hurst, director of the integrated crisis team at LMH Health.

When stay-at-home orders were implemented, Hurst and his team at LMH Health prepared for an increase in behavioral health needs at the emergency department. They ended up seeing a decrease.

Hurst said this was likely due to people being worried that the hospital was too busy for their needs or being scared that they could contract COVID-19 if they came. But Hurst also said it takes a while to see the full effects on behavioral health following a crisis.

During a crisis, people tend to be distracted adjusting to the new normal, Hurst said. It is not until a month or two after that they have time to slow down and reflect on the situation.

“People kind of hunker down during the event,” said Patrick Schmitz, CEO of Bert Nash Community Health Center. “We predict that we will see, much like the surge that we were anticipating with the virus, a surge in mental health crises here in the coming weeks and months.”

Bob Tryanski, director of behavioral health projects for Douglas County, said leaders were just now beginning to see what people will need in terms of mental health services and support. This pandemic is putting economic and familial stresses on residents, he said, and the trauma from this pandemic will be shared by the entire community.

“I think a lot of people in our community are going to need help managing loss and grief and dealing with change in ways that they never imagined, and that’s not driven by a mental illness or an addiction issue,” Tryanski said. “It’s driven by shared trauma and a dramatic event we’ve had.”

‘People are more at risk’ for relapse, addiction

The COVID-19 pandemic is placing stress on everyone, said Sandra Dixon, the chief clinical officer at DCCCA, but it’s especially difficult for people who struggle with mental health or substance abuse.

Dixon said DCCCA has received increased referrals for residential services in Lawrence and Wichita, where the organization has addiction treatment programs.

According to a recent national survey from an American Addiction Centers subsidiary, alcohol.org, one in three respondents said they believed they would drink more alcohol than usual while in self-isolation. In Lawrence, two out of three liquor stores the Journal-World interviewed in late April said sales have been up — “significantly,” one said.

Stacey Cooper, director of case management and care coordination for Heartland Regional Alcohol and Drug Assessment Center, said she’s concerned that there seems to be a glorification on social media of drinking.

“People are more at risk — more at risk for relapse and more at risk for developing addictive behaviors,” she said.

Heartland RADAC is not currently seeing clients face-to-face, but is using virtual means to provide assessments, case management and care coordination. Some clients are thriving by using the phone, Cooper said. It keeps them in their comfort zone. But Heartland RADAC has been unable to get hold of other clients: those who lack the proper technology or are uninterested in working on recovery.

Schmitz, the CEO at Bert Nash, said the number of people seeking help at Bert Nash has decreased, but, as noted, he expects a surge in mental health crises in the weeks and months to come.

Bert Nash has moved most of its services online, but people without access to technology are still able to come in and receive services. Schmitz said there are designated rooms that are technology enabled in which clients can talk to a provider who might be working from home.

Schmitz said his staff has done “just about anything they could to help clients that are homebound,” including delivering food, medicine and even sitting outside with clients or going on walks to still give them a face-to-face interaction.

Social support

Tryanski has been inspired by the collaboration between health care agencies in Douglas County and how they have worked together to solve problems.

One example of this collaboration has been Bert Nash’s collaboration with LMH Health. Nicole Rials, urgent care director at Bert Nash, found local therapists and chaplains to volunteer to speak to health professionals at LMH Health who might need someone to talk to because of the stress of their jobs.

Tryanski also said the virtual support being offered by the peer fellows at the library is another “example of a new resource and approach” being used to improve behavioral health during this crisis.

Anyone seeking to talk to a peer fellow may go to the Lawrence Public Library’s website and find the “peer support” tab under the resources menu. There, residents may schedule a Zoom meeting or phone call with one of the specialists.

Theresa Bird, one of the peer specialists, said she is not talking to as many people virtually as she was when the library was open. But when she does speak to people, the pandemic is usually mentioned.

“I know that with the people that I speak with regularly, it seems like (the pandemic) has exacerbated troubles that were already there,” she said. “I don’t think we do as well in isolation, especially when you have the ambiguity of this virus on top of that.”

Bird has struggled with her mental health in the past, and, while doubt sometimes creeps in that her struggles could return, she said she has the support system and coping skills to maintain stability.

“I definitely believe that peer support has a role to play in what people are experiencing during this pandemic,” she said. “Because when I keep my own thoughts to myself for an extended period of time, sort of bottled in, I just don’t feel as healthy.”

“I think people are resilient and if they have the support and understanding of the people around them, then it’s not a hopeless situation,” Bird said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with behavioral health, numerous organizations are available to help in Douglas County. Here are the numbers for some of those organizations:

Bert Nash’s 24-hour number: 785-843-9192

DCCCA: 785-841-4138 or email gethelp@dccca.org

Heartland RADAC: 913-789-0951

Headquarters Counseling Center: 785-841-2345


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