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Covid-related mental health challenges may get worse before they get better

Jaymi Butler

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Governor Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey, led a panel discussion on Covid-19 and its impact on mental health.

Covid-19 has impacted the physical health of more than 300,000 Floridians, but the virus has also had a dramatic impact on the mental health of people across the state – and the worst may be yet to come.

That was one of the main takeaways from a roundtable discussion on mental health and Covid-19 held at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay Thursday. The discussion, hosted by Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey, included representatives from a variety of fields who have seen firsthand the effects that Covid-19 is having on mental health.

“The pandemic has had other health effects that we’re still coming to terms with, and quite frankly will be with us for a long time,” DeSantis said. “There’s a lot of anxiety.”

Clara Reynolds, president and CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, predicted a “mental health tsunami” is coming and will likely hit in October or November. She said she’s already seen a dramatic increase in the number of calls to 211, a phone number that connects people to help and services. 

“When we started tracking around Feb. 29, five people called that week, and then we watched the numbers escalate,” she said. “We were getting thousands of calls. People were very concerned about their economic stability, how to teach their children and how to put food on the table.”

Some of those people, Casey DeSantis said, may be people who’ve never sought mental health support in the past and aren’t quite sure how to go about it. That could tie into the stigma surrounding mental illness that was later mentioned by panelist Jay Reeve, president and CEO of Apalachee Center, a behavioral health network in the Panhandle.

“There are all kinds of barriers for seeking treatment,” he said. “We need to get prominent voices talking about mental health and anxiety and make it a non-forbidden subject.”

That stigma has been a challenge in working with the veteran community, where many people don’t want to talk about their mental health issues, said Danny Burgess, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs. 

“The biggest issue is awareness,” he said. “We need to make sure our veterans are connected to all the services available to them.”

Issues surrounding children’s mental health and safety were also a concern mentioned by a number of panelists. Children are missing out on social interaction with their peers. They’re away from support networks that exist through sports and performing arts. They’re feeding off the stresses of their parents. For children suffering from abuse and neglect and those in foster care, the consequences could be even more dire.

Chad Poppell, secretary for the Florida Department of Children and Families, said the department’s abuse hotline generally sees a 25 percent reduction in the number of calls it receives when school lets out. This is because teachers, the number-one reporters of abuse, are no longer seeing their students every day. With Covid-19 closing schools back in March, the phones have been even quieter.

“We’re very concerned about it,” he said. 

Additionally, some of the court hearings that could provide permanency for children have been suspended, meaning these children are having to stay in the system longer, he said. Court-ordered visitation with parents has also had to be suspended, which could lead to more anxiety.

Telehealth options will play a large role in supporting mental health treatment going forward, and DeSantis said he recently approved $4 million for funding for mental health services provided online.

“It’s critical that we have this funding,” he said.

Poppell said that Covid has “forced us to really jump in and make telehealth a significant part of our delivery,” and the results have been promising so far. 

“It’s one thing to make services available, and it’s another to make sure people are actually going,” he said, adding that in some parts of the state, he’s seeing as many as 40 percent more people keeping their appointments than they were before. 

Reynolds is also optimistic about the benefits of telehealth. All people need to do, she said, is call 211 and ask for help.

“If you need additional services and support, we can provide them thanks to teletherapy, and we have other really innovative ways to make those connections happen,” she said. 

Florida reported another 13,965 cases Thursday and 156 deaths, a new high. The state also saw a record increase in new hospitalizations. Locally, Pinellas County recorded 288 new infections and 17 more deaths.

 

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