A mental health expert discusses the unique challenges of this moment – and what gives him hope for what’s next.

Your Health, Coronavirus Updates | 8 months ago

The State of the Mental Health Crisis, Right Now

A mental health expert discusses the unique challenges of this moment – and what gives him hope for what’s next.

Dr. Wayne SparksBy Wayne Sparks, MD, Senior Medical Director of Behavioral Health Services at Atrium Health

We spent much of 2020 in crisis mode, but hope kept us going: hope for a vaccine, hope for a return to our old lives. Last spring, that hope seemed within reach. Many of us breathed a mask-free, vaccinated sigh of relief. This summer, however, the Delta variant changed the math and the rules. Here we are again, back to masks and restrictions. It’s a daunting time.

What heartens me, however, is how much more we’re talking about our mental health. We’re more open to discuss our stressors; we’re more willing to tell others about the coping strategies, therapy and medications that help us; and we’re more willing to be curious about the health of our minds, as well as our bodies.

We’ve learned: Being open about our mental health can be a freeing and empowering feeling.

I want to keep the conversation going. Here are five thoughts I’d like to share about the state of the mental health crisis today.

1. The crisis isn’t new. Mental healthcare faced challenges before the pandemic.

Our country was in a mental health crisis long before the pandemic began. For years, many areas have lacked community services, and stigma has prevented people from seeking help. As a result, too many people don’t reach out until they’re in crisis. At that point, they may get help through an emergency department and require inpatient treatment. The demand for both of those services have remained high.

And then the pandemic increased that demand.

In 2020, the CDC reported a national increase in reported symptoms of depression and anxiety from 8% in 2019 to 30% in 2020. We are seeing this trend in Atrium Health. There is also a rise of 13% in reports of new or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions. More alarming is a reported four-fold increase of people having serious suicidal considerations. In addition, people who’ve had COVID-19 experience higher rates of depression and anxiety than those who haven’t had it. A national 2021 study showed that 13% of COVID-19 patients received a first-time diagnosis of a neurological or psychiatric condition within six months of their infection.

The most important thing for you to know is this: No matter the demand, we have capacity to help those who need it. If you’re in crisis, call 911, visit an emergency department, or call Atrium Health’s Behavioral Health Help Line (704-444-2400), available 24/7. If you’re not in crisis but want to learn how to begin therapy, medication or outpatient services, you can call our helpline or talk with your primary care provider to learn next steps.

Demand remains high, but we have many ways to offer help to those who need it.

2. This is an especially challenging time. If you feel stressed or anxious, that’s understandable.

It’s a particularly rough time. A year and a half since the pandemic began, emerging variants and vaccine hesitation mean that we still have uncertainty about what’s next. So many of us feel stuck at times. I do, too.

In addition, the divisions over masking and vaccination policies have grown intense. In the beginning, it felt like we were all in this together, but these battles separate and inflame us. This leads to even more depression and anxiety.

If you feel sad or overwhelmed or angry or stressed, it’s understandable. It’s even understandable to feel all of those things at once. As a mental healthcare professional, I want people to know that there are tools to help you cope with these feelings in healthy, productive ways – and you can employ some of those tools right now, where you’re sitting.

3. Coping strategies can ease your stress. Find some that work for you.

Different people find coping strategies that work best for them, so experiment with a few. Simply acknowledging how you feel or what you’re grieving can be an effective first step. It can be a relief to admit that you’re having a sad moment or an angry moment or that you miss your old life. Those feelings make us human – not weak.

Then try different coping strategies. Some effective ones include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Healthy eating
  • Time outdoors
  • Sharing feelings with others
  • Taking breaks to unplug from social media and news

Research has shown that people have found it comforting to share nostalgic thoughts with others during the pandemic, that they find a comfort talking about the moments or activities that have brought them joy. Or you can simply talk with someone about how you’re feeling and listen to how they’re feeling. Personally, I’ve found that it’s powerful to reach out to friends and family to offer support to them. Extending help to others is another healthy way of coping.

4. I am greatly concerned about our healthcare providers.

I’m tremendously worried about our healthcare providers. People have an incredible tank of resilience, but I hear a lot of healthcare workers say that they feel as though they used up all their resilience in the first year of the pandemic. Yet they still live COVID-19 day in and day out, putting their patients first. I believe we’ll see this stress continue to impact them, even six months to a year after the pandemic wanes.

5. I find hope in the number of people reaching out for support.

One trend gives me hope. We’re seeing more people going to their primary care providers and asking for help. Our outpatient behavioral health clinics now see about 10% more referrals than they did, including some people who were previously resistant to getting treatment for mental health.

Even our own teammates are asking for help, now more than ever. Atrium Health’s Employee Assistance Program has seen increases in usage throughout the pandemic. In June 2021, usage was 123% the rate it was in 2020, and it was 147% what it was in 2019. We established a wellbeing line for our physicians and advanced practice providers in 2018 that has seen steady increases in use: 68 calls in 2019 and 116 calls in 2020.

If you’re in crisis, please reach out for help immediately. But if you’re not in crisis but still feeling overwhelmed, please don’t wait. If coping strategies aren’t enough to offer you relief, talk to your doctor or a trusted friend about next steps – therapy, for example, can be an incredible support to help us manage and get through difficult times. I don’t want you to wait until you’re in crisis to reach out, when there are many tools we have to offer you support right now.

For 24/7 mental health crisis support, call Atrium Health’s Behavioral Health Help Line at 704-444-2400. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please call 911.

You can also learn more about behavioral health resources available at Atrium Health for adults, teenagers and children.