The fear of Covid-19, forced isolation, social distance, economic anxiety and the challenge of adapting to the “new normal” can trigger psychological stress. In a recent report, the World Health Organization warns of a looming mental illness crisis around the world resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The report identified segments of populations that are vulnerable to mental distress, including children and young people isolated from friends and school, healthcare workers who are surrounded by patients infected with and dying from Covid-19.
Psychologists say children are anxious and increases in cases of depression and anxiety have been recorded in several countries. The report also noted that vulnerable individuals with preexisting mental health disorders are likely to experience a relapse.
On Guam, the coronavirus contagion has kept the Guam Behavioral Health and Wellness Center’s crisis hotline busy. Clarissa Maniebo, a crisis hotline worker, sits by the phone to listen. “There have been a total of 609 phone calls to our hotline from March 16 to April 25,” said Maniebo, who has been a social worker for 14 years. She’s been providing assistance to the crisis hotline since the start of the pandemic on Guam in March.
Maniebo said in the first two weeks of the pandemic, the Crisis Call Center averaged 23 to 51 calls a week. The following week, the number of calls dramatically increased to 141.In the succeeding weeks, the number of calls has become consistently 100 per week. She attributed the surge in crisis calls to reports about the announcements of deaths and increase in positive test results.“Our calls can last anywhere from five minutes to one hour or more, depending on the severity,” Maniebo added.
But calling the crisis hotline has contributed to the distress, especially for consumers wit existing mental illnesses. Another social worker, who requested anonymity, said the consumers’ situations were difficult to manage at first “because all the GBHWC social workers and counselors were difficult to contact. They worked hotline or other shifts.”
The social workers sometimes have to make the calls themselves on behalf of the consumers, the social worker said. To address the challenge of calling the crisis hotline, social workers have set up a Facebook page for those with Facebook accounts. “We added them to a group chat so we could host virtual meetings and they could maintain connection with peers,” the social worker said. “Once our peer support staff were back to work, they were made available for our members to contact. We make daily calls out to the members to touch base with them. We have a few members who are generally concerned about all the consumers and the impact that Covid-19 has had on consumers with mental illness.”
According to Maniebo, 46 percent of callers seek information or updates on coronavirus; 12 percent are those who just need someone to talk to about their feelings; 8 percent of the calls deal with medication crisis; 3 percent were due to suicide ideation for themselves; and 5 percent were suicide ideations for someone else. Maniebo said 39 of the calls are related to quarantine, loss of jobs, anxiety, Covid- 19 symptoms and economic relief, among others.
Most of the time, Maniebo said, people call just to vent their frustrations. “I’ve taken calls from individuals who experience many difficulties ranging from feelings of being overwhelmed by Covid-19 to feeling frustrated because they need financial assistance,” she added.
“So, I listen to let them express their thoughts and feelings and in just that phone call alone, it usually provides a sense of relief for them. I’ve also helped callers by providing contact information to help them get updates and information relative to Covid-19. If a caller’s concern needs additional help during the call, workers refer them to the appropriate agency.”
Maniebo said one caller talked about the overwhelming stress of being homebound all the time as residents were asked to shelter in place. The caller and her spouse have been cooped up in the house too long that they argue about everything all the time now.
Another caller expressed anger at some people who enter stores without face masks. When she brought it to management’s attention, the caller said her complaint was ignored. The same caller also expressed frustration with not being able to leave the house to get basic necessities.
What exacerbates the people’s anxiety is the unfamiliar nature of the unprecedented crisis. Without really knowing what will happen and when the world will return to normalcy, the crisis hotline employees face the challenge of instilling hope; they can’t really reassure distress callers that things will be okay or will get better. “It affects some of them in a major way because they are not able to go about their daily routine without the difficulties they face,” Maniebo said.
In the United States, a consortium of mental health groups has requested $10 billion from Congress to address the impending “mental health and addiction crisis,” an amount almost twice the 2020 budget request of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.