A Northern Nevada health alliance recently released some eye opening statistics regarding residents suffering from mental impacts tied to the coronavirus pandemic.
The not-for-profit National Alliance for Mental Illness, an agency dedicated to helping residents identify resources for mental health, in 2019 received 3,300 calls, but in 2020 the amount of calls more than tripled to 10,468 on its Warmline, a non-crisis, confidential phone line that services people who are mentally struggling.
The line, also available to text messaging, connects callers to one-on-one phone calls with a NAMI operator who offers support, motivation and a listening ear to someone in need.
Each day during the pandemic lockdowns in Nevada, NAMI documented a 600% call increase and they logged 2,392 hours of phone time.
About 50% of the calls mentioned COVID-19 as a stressor, along with depression, anxiety and social isolation.
Geographically, rural areas including the Quad-County region make up a large majority of the calls NAMI received this last year. Calls came from Washoe County made up about 17%.
Seniors who are 65 and older are at a higher risk for COVID-19 which means that many have been isolated from friends and family for months. Assisted living homes are also restricting visitors.
Out of all of NAMI’s calls, 29% of calls came from seniors, and 10% said that if NAMI’s warmline wasn’t available they would have called 911.
About 404,000 Nevadans report that they live with mental health conditions, that is roughly seven times the population size of Carson City.
In El Dorado County, according to the Suicide Prevention Network, last year started off dark when lockdowns went into place with suicides doubling from the year prior from March to May but started to ease as the year went on.
In 2020, there were seven suicides in the Lake Tahoe region of the county, including Strawberry and Kyburz.
“Overall, our calls for service for attempted suicides in 2020 were down about 20% from the number of attempted suicides in 2019,” said El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Eric Palmberg in an email. “Our number of actual suicides in 2020 are down about 10% from our suicide numbers in 2019.”
While the numbers were less than the year prior, the mental impacts of the pandemic have created a challenge for lawmakers to try and juggle the physical and mental health risks of lockdowns and closures.
“To me, I immediately saw an escalation in crisis,” said Karis Holman, NAMI EL Dorado County chapter president.
She said that for many of the callers, they talk about COVID the entire time. COVID has brought on other stressors including financially. Holman says the unknown of financial security has caused worry.
“When someone is struggling the worst thing is isolation,” she said. “Stay social-distant, but reach out and don’t let yourself be isolated.”
Matt Wong, a local clinical psychologist said that he has seen an increase of people since the start of the pandemic.
“In the beginning during the lockdown I saw a significant decrease in referrals, but as the pandemic has worn on, I have noticed a dramatic rise in both the number of people seeking therapy and severity of symptoms.”
He says that his colleagues throughout California have been noticing a similar trend as well as longer wait times to see new patients. Wong says that the new year hasn’t significantly changed the demand so things, as of now, aren’t showing signs of improving or getting worse.
“There has been more hope since the vaccines are coming out, like the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Lisa Shafer, program coordinator for El Dorado County Suicide Prevention Network. “If we don’t see a change with COVID-19 here soon like the opening of school, I will be concerned. People are hanging onto that hope and hope is what everybody needs.”
South Lake Tahoe Mayor Tamara Wallace has seen the impacts of COVID on mental health first hand. Wallace and her husband have regularly taken in or fostered children in need. One such boy lived with them for about a year when he was 12 years old and remained close with the family.
Both he and his mom worked seasonal jobs in South Lake and both lost their jobs because of COVID. He had dealt with mental health issues for his whole life and with the additional stress of COVID, he took his life.
“I was like a second mom, I just loved this child,” Wallace said. “And when he killed himself, he essentially left the information that he did not want to be a burden on his mother at the age that he was because he knew that she was struggling as well.”
A second young man who grew up with Wallace’s kids died shortly before Christmas. Wallace said he drank himself to death.
“I think what’s happening with COVID, and through the research that I’ve done, we have situations in our community; you have the economic stressors that the lockdown and COVID have created, then you have the fear of the disease, and fear turns to anger,” Wallace said. “In some cases, it also has a tendency with the lockdown to increase people’s substance abuse, and you then have a lack of social outlet.
“We won’t know until all is said and done and peer reviewed articles have all come out, and the numbers have all been counted,” Wallaca added. “But it certainly seems, anecdotally, that our society is much more unhealthy mentally because of COVID.”
While suicides happen everywhere, in 2018 the CDC released statistics regarding suicide death rates which clearly shows a line of western mountainous states that have the highest rates. Starting in Montana then going down through Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and even Nevada. While Nevada wasn’t as high as the northern states listed, they still recorded 20.8 suicide rate. Many of the states on the “suicide belt” have seasonal resort mountain towns, so what sets South Lake Tahoe apart from those? Could the seasonality of these tourist towns make a difference?
Shafer says that statistically, suicides have been most common in the spring.
She suggests that sometimes the new season can bring on negative feelings for those stuck in a bad mindset or the pressure to be excited about the new season can be overwhelming.
Wong agrees that there is a seasonal effect to the number of people seeking mental health services.
“Beginning in the middle of January until the spring is typically the busiest time of the year in my practice,” said Wong. “Living in a mountain town can feel isolating, especially when we are buried under snow. The short days, the demand of managing snow, and the frustrations of busy weekends in town can all contribute to anger, frustration, anxiety, and depression at times.”
“Our town is pretty resilient,” said Shafer. “Our community is unique and everyone looks out for each other. We have a community that has lived here for generations with extensive connectedness which is unique for a mountain town.”
DISPORTIONALLY AFFECTED GROUPS
While nationally, a middle-aged white male is most likely to take the next step at committing suicide, every gender and nationality is at risk.
Wong says that he believes low and middle income households have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic because many community members of these households are unable to seek mental health care.
“I also think that families with children are often in a bind where they have to choose between work and their children’s schooling,” he said. “Distance learning has been difficult for everyone involved and there are stressors coming at families from multiple angles as they navigate having to go to work and having their children home and on a computer,.”
“El Dorado County has many dedicated and wonderful workers at the county level but my impression is that county mental health is severely under-staffed and under-supported,” Wong said.
Wong recommends to improve mental health resources in our community, that the Medi-Cal licensing system needs to be overhauled so that other providers in town can help shoulder the caseload burden.
“At present, we only have one clinic that is able to provide Medi-Cal services and to my knowledge they are currently outsourcing due to a lack of clinical staff,” he said.
Shafer also agrees that more resources need to be available. She said she is on a committee with others and that they are working on a county-wide plan to increase services. She recommends checking on people that you love and remain social while being physically distant whether that’s through a Zoom or phone call.
“Don’t assume things are okay,” she said. “Keep plugging along, things are changing.”
“When we are struggling with loss, we can sometimes feel unmoored and without purpose,” said Wong. “Try not to judge yourself harshly for feeling down and know that you are not alone.”
Wong reecomends finding one thing every day that surprises you while staying away from social media or other places online that could be a stressor.
“Remember that there are caring people who can help and many of us are a phone call away. This has been tough, but we will get through it,” he said.
Reno now offers free TalkSpace sessions for residents. Wallace said she’d love to find a way for South Lake Tahoe to help its residents.
“If someone does [have a solution] please share and I will make it happen, that’s for sure,” Wallace said.
In the meantime, she said anyone in the city is able to call her if they need help and she will do what she can.
If you or someone you know needs help call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) (English) or 1-888-628-9454 (Español).
El Dorado County Behavioral Health Division has a 24-hour crisis phone line at 530-544-2219.
Barton Health also has a list of resources at http://www.bartonhealth.org/tahoe/behavioral-health.aspx.