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Mental health experts fear virus-related depression, abuse issues


With the COVID-19 pandemic ebbing, medical professionals are now worried about another epidemic — the mental health problems the virus has left in its wake.

State statistics show far fewer cases of COVID-19 and far fewer deaths. But in discussions with people in the community, there is a far greater instance of people with anxiety, depression and substance abuse, medical personnel say. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control on one week last June — just three months into the pandemic — adults in the United States self-reported “considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. Younger adults, racial/ ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation.”

The report says that a survey during the last week of June 2020 indicated 40 percent of U.S. adults were struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.

While the data is still not complete for the past year, local health officials say they are seeing the same thing here. Scott Lockard, director of public health at the Kentucky River District Health Department, said that anecdotally, emergency responders are seeing more overdose victims, and the department is trying to expand its OD Tracker network to gather information about those cases. The state is also working on a program that would allow ambulance personnel to leave behind Narcan, a medicine that blocks the effects of opioids for about 30 minutes, at homes where they pick up overdose patients.

“We’re going to see a need for a lot more wraparound services for people when this is over,” said Lockard.

Adam Maggard, director of the southern Kentucky region of Mountain Comprehensive Care Centers, said statistics statewide show that overdoses were up 30 percent in 2020, when they had been going down, and people who had been in recovery have reported returning to drugs or alcohol.

“At the office, we’re seeing more people that are presenting with anxiety and depression,” Maggard said. “The isolation seems to be really getting to them.”

While the studies have been done on adults, both Lockard and Maggard said they are concerned about children. After months of virtual classes, children haven’t had much social contact, and are now being asked to return to the classroom, where they may have anxiety not just about catching COVID-19, but also about interacting with large groups for the first time in more than a year.

“Our school systems are going to be seeing a lot more issues because of this,” Lockard said.

Maggard said the state for the first time has approved counseling by telephone, but that might not be very helpful.

“The problem with kids though, unfortunately, is it’s really hard to engage with a kid over the phone, so that adds another barrier to treatment,” Maggard said.

Shawn Gilley serves on the Letcher County Board of Education and works as executive director of Letcher Ambulance Service. He said the ambulance crews respond to situations on a daily basis that make him worry even more about kids.

“This has caused mental effects on the kids, on teachers, on parents and it’s going to create situations we need to address in schools,” Gilley said. “Ambulance calls for suicidal thoughts, domestic calls, attempted suicide calls, suicide calls, overdose calls have all gone up, and kids are there and see all of that.”

That is on top of fears kids have to face to return to school after the social isolation caused by the response to the virus, Gilley said.

Letcher County Schools Superintendent Denise Yonts said district staff has had conversations about the problems the virus has posed to children, and has taken steps to help. It has contacts with both MCCC and Kentucky River Community Care to provide services for the students.

“We’re actually going to bring in some extra guidance counselors and we have clinicians on-site to deal with those kinds of issues,” Yonts said.

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