Amber Hodges of Gainesville can’t remember when she last hugged someone. As someone with a bipolar disorder who already experiences depression, the pandemic can make getting out of bed feel pointless. When she feels hopeless, no one can visit her because of COVID-19.
“It feels kind of stifling sometimes,” said Hodges, 30, director of peer services and outreach at the Gainesville branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Karen Lovely, 40, of Newberry, also has a bipolar disorder and anxiety and depends on her Social Security disability income. Local food banks are closed and her monthly electroconvulsive therapy, which sends electric currents to the brain, was suspended. The coronavirus has left her with bigger bills and less support, Lovely said.
“Life is continuing, just at a lower enjoyment level,” she said.
The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing cases of mental illness, and it is causing an influx of new patients and crisis calls, area mental health providers and advocates say.
Evan Griswold, operations director of Gainesville Peer Respite, which serves those under mental or emotional distress, called it a generational trauma comparable to after the Great Depression.
“It can push people into the dark places,” Griswold said.
The prevalence of depression is three times more common among U.S. adults during COVID-19 than before it, according to researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health. They released this month the first study related to the pandemic’s impact on mental health nationally.
“Individuals with lower social resources, lower economic resources, and greater exposure to stressors (e.g., job loss) reported a greater burden of depression symptoms,” the study found.
Meridian Behavioral Healthcare’s mobile response team has had a 40% increase in crisis calls, said Alan Paulin, the center’s senior vice president of clinical and community services.
Because of the pandemic, Meridian is offering home visits – staying outside and abiding by social distancing – and 10 times more online psychiatric and therapy services, Paulin said. Its crisis stabilization units have also operated at or near capacity since April. And more children are entering those units at higher rates, as its staff is not able to intervene sooner at schools.
“People are under pressure,” Paulin said, adding that some people may be affected by the pandemic for years after it ends. A “mental health fallout” is coming, he said.
Lovely participates in NAMI’s adult mentoring program, which according to its executive director, Arthur Stockwell, reached capacity and had to create its first waitlist in July.
Hodges said she mentors Lovely and three others over phone or video calls. They follow safety guidelines when in person and have virtual game and movie nights on Zoom, she said.
“We had to get creative,” Hodges said.
The pandemic is magnifying symptoms for people already having bouts with mental illness.
Marina, 23, of Gainesville, is a senior studying health and behavior who is taking fewer classes this fall at the University of Florida. Caring for her bipolar disorder and anxiety is now like a job, said Marina, who asked that her last name not be published to protect her employment prospects.
The student said lacking any control over the virus is depressing. She can’t rely on the stability of a daily routine, or spend time with loved ones to help manage her symptoms. She has adjusted her medication to help and is putting more energy into things such as yoga and taking walks.
“When it’s like… this existential kind of mind-boggling thing that’s happening, I need to pull out all my coping mechanisms, so I don’t go further down the hole,” Marina said.
Griswold said he has struggled with severe anxiety and depression in the past, and like Hodges from time to time feels particularly isolated having to work alone at home.
“When this all first started, I felt pretty cool as a cucumber,” he said. “The more it kind of sinks in, the more we realize this could be around a while.”
Griswold said he has talked to peers dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder. To those who feel distressed and unsafe from germs on a daily basis, the coronavirus is an extra hardship.
“Add this – that’s like kryptonite to somebody who experiences those kinds of things,” he said.
His message to those who need help from Peer Respite or another place serving those with mental illnesses: “Don’t be shy. Don’t hesitate to reach out.”
More people have also reached out to the Alachua County Crisis Center recently. Calls to there have increased by 50% since April, said its director, Alexandra Martinez. The center reinstated its rumor control phone line then to offer additional information, support and comfort, she said.
Martinez expressed concern that many people in the community – particularly students and faculty at UF – are high-achievers who consider themselves “the strong one in the family.”
“Now more than ever, we’re really stressing to people that reaching out does not mean weakness,” she said. “Sometimes the strongest thing that you can do is acknowledge that you need help.”
Florida has ranked second-to-last in mental health spending nationally for years, according to the News-Press (Fort Myers) and the Tampa Bay Times. The state ranked 40th in a 2020 analysis of access to mental health care from Mental Health America, an advocacy group based in Virginia.
Paulin said mental health care agencies need more state and federal funding to support their efforts. “The capacity does struggle to keep up with the demand,” he said.
Lovely also said she wants the government to offer more support. A one-time federal stimulus check is not enough, she said. Congress should adjust her disability income based on the increased expenses associated with the coronavirus, she said.
“This is not new, and this is not gone, and it’s not improving,” Lovely said. “Where is everything? Where is the assistance? Where is help?”
If you or someone you know needs mental health support or is in a crisis, please call the Alachua County Crisis Line at 352-264-6789 or the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255. A chat service is available online here or you could text HELLO to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. These services are available 24/7.