America is in crisis: Over the weekend more than 250 protests, rallies and vigils took place to mourn and remember George Floyd, a black man whose death was ruled a homicide after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for several minutes. Some protests have turned violent and led to more deaths while President Donald Trump said he "will deploy the United States military," if states or cities don't take adequate action.
While protestors crowd together in cities across the country, the novel coronavirus continues to ravage the country — with deaths surpassing a staggering 100,000 lives lost. Infectious disease experts warn that these gatherings could cause a major setback for controlling the virus.
The news is overwhelming, and for people living with a mental health condition, this time brings greater uncertainty. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Census Bureau recently released data from mid-May that found that reported symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder are on the rise compared to the same period last year.
Yet, with the coronavirus still prevalent in much of the country, it is a difficult time to get help. You might be wondering: What is teletherapy? What does one do in a crisis now? What happens if people can’t see their friends and family? These feelings should be expected and experts want people to reach out for help when needed.
“People want to get support during this very tumultuous time,” Dr. Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), told TODAY. “Everybody is vulnerable to (COVID-19). There's no population that is immune to this. It’s important to keep in mind that we're all in this together and you're not alone.”
New technology allows therapy, medication to happen at home
There have been a number of rapid changes that allow both therapists and psychiatrists to provide care to patients from a distance. That change? Teletherapy or telemedicine, where a provider consults with a patient via a video chat service.
“Medicare, for the first time, announced people could do teletherapy, telemedicine from home. That's pretty new. It never happened before,” Duckworth said. “You’re not getting second-rate care. Teletherapy is the same effectiveness as in-person.”
Leah Blain and her staff have been providing teletherapy to patients at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia prior to the COVID-19 spread. She said that teletherapy has an added benefit: greater patient compliance.
“We think that it allows people to consistently stay in care,” Blain, the clinical director of the clinic, told TODAY. “That's one of the best predictors of treatment outcomes for mental health concerns, sticking with it.”
For people who do not have video capabilities, therapists and psychiatrists can conduct sessions over the phone. While it might feel weird at first, everyone is adjusting to the new normal.
“They have one day that is awkward,” Duckworth explained. “And then they’re ready to go.”
Where to find crisis care
Finding crisis mental health care can feel especially challenging right now. Often people experiencing mental health crisis can visit the emergency room and might feel wary of going now.
People should still visit emergency rooms during an emergency. Blain encourages people to go to mental health hospitals, if possible, or reach out to mobile crisis centers. But the experts agree that calling support lines are a great option.
“If the idea is that you’re not able to leave your home, the national crisis text line is the best resource," Duckworth said.
There are a variety of hotlines people can reach out to, including:
- Texting HELLO to 741741 for 24/7 support from Crisis Text line.
- Calling the NAMI helpline at 800-950-6264, which is staffed by volunteers who have mental health conditions.
- Reaching out to warm lines, which also provide peer support on a local level. The state phone numbers can be found here.
- Calling the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
- Using the Disaster Distress helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or texting TalkWithUs at 66745.
Innovative solutions to mental health in trying times
When Ariela Safira’s friend attempted suicide, she helped her navigate the mental health system. Safira was surprised to learn how challenging it was. So, she started Real, to make it easier. The studio is offering free teletherapy, starting this week to all female-identifying people in New York. She hoped to open a physical location, too, but wanted to help sooner rather than later.
People can join digital group salons — group therapy led by a trained mental health professional — one-on-one talk therapy and events.
“Mental health care is so much more than one-on-one therapy. There are many different opportunities,” she said.
Julius Boatwright is also using technology to reach people in need of mental health with Wellness Wednesdays on Facebook. The CEO and founder of Steel Smiling — a Pittsburgh-based organization that connects people of color to mental health resources through advocacy, awareness and education — heard from many that they needed resources more than ever.
“Most of us, if not all of us, have some sense of ongoing uncertainty and anxiety and stress and dread,” he told TODAY. “We need, as individuals and as a society, for people to acknowledge the magnitude and the weight of this.”
On every Wellness Wednesday a different provider, such as a social worker or a yoga teacher, will offer a free session that anyone can access. They give people skills to practice as they cope with their feelings.
While Boatwright hopes Wellness Wednesday will help people grappling with this unprecedented pandemic, he also thinks it provides a chance for people to think deeply about emotional wellbeing.
“This is the perfect opportunity to prioritize mental health,” he said. “Everyone can now coalesce around this issue. It is a call to action to every person who has power or influence that they have to be talking about mental health right now.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to the National Alliance on Mental Illness as the National Alliance on Mental Health.