By Miles Maguire
Not too long ago Mary Lord Janness was in the one-story building on Main Street where she works as executive director of NAMI Oshkosh, the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Looking out the window, she saw him, “a man on the outside ledge of a building” across the street. The man was apparently contemplating whether to take his own life.
“It really brings home to us how very, very difficult it is for people to get by in this circumstance,” Janness said.
“Fortunately, the emergency personnel, police and firefighters working together, handled things calmly and were able to get him back inside the building,” she said. “He was taken for treatment by ambulance.”
Every day local, state and federal agencies provide an update on the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the physical health of Americans. Meanwhile the virus is also taking a toll on the mental health of Americans.
In Oshkosh one way the problem has shown up is in starkly higher drug abuse statistics. Overdoses have “skyrocketed,” said police Chief Dean Smith. “We are triple where we were last year.” Through July of last year, he said there had been 13 overdoses and three deaths. This year, there have been 46 overdoses, eight of which were fatal.
For Winnebago County the Sheriff’s Office has recorded 21 confirmed overdose deaths this year, with six cases still undergoing review. This year’s fatalities already exceed the total of 20 from 2019.
The number of suicides locally this year has remained flat, 17 to date, although “we have seen an increase in suicide related behavior,” said Sarah Bassing-Sutton, community suicide prevention coordinator with the N.E.W. Mental Health Connection.
She also noted that suicide numbers had already risen to a high level locally, having increased at a much faster rate than the national average from 2010 to 2018.
“We are getting a huge increase in the number of calls asking for help,” said Janness.
“Many people who have never had mental health issues are now, during the pandemic, experiencing them,” she added. “Others who have lived with mental illness are seeing their symptoms increase.”
The pandemic is both increasing the overall level of anxiety in society and leading to specific conditions that cause mental health problems.
“Our world is off its axis. We need to tilt it back,” said Sheriff John Matz. COVID, protests, civil unrest and “a lot of things” are driving the situation, he said. “We somehow need to get back to normal.”
Individuals are facing many different circumstances that can damage their sense of well-being, including disruptions in social support systems based on group health or church attendance.
Jennifer Skolaski, facilitator of the Winnebago County Overdose Fatality Review Team, cited these factors: job loss, delays and uncertainty in receiving unemployment checks, food insecurity, fear of eviction, limited childcare, virtual schooling, limited access to social and medical services, and social isolation.
“Alcohol sales have significantly increased since March, meaning people have more alcohol on hand in the home and are drinking at home more often,” said Samantha Hilker, coalition coordinator for a group formerly called the Winnebago County Drug and Alcohol Coalition. It has just adopted the name Breakwater: A Community Together.
“Alcohol to-go options have also cropped up with food delivery services making it all-around more accessible,” she said.
Some fear that extra government support payments may also be diverted to purchases that could pose a threat to safety, such as firearms and drugs.
Another factor that may have contributed to the rise in overdoses has been an increase in drug availability in response to changes in law enforcement routines. “During the first months of COVID, we slowed down our drug investigations,” the Oshkosh police chief said.
At the same time, shortages have been reported both nationally and locally in overdose reversing medications.
“Lack of access to and utilization of Narcan/Naloxone … has impacted the number of overdose deaths in Winnebago County,” said Stephanie Gyldenvand, community health strategist with hte county. “Most overdose deaths occurred in a residence when the individual was alone and there was no access to Narcan/Naloxone.”
While the situation is a cause of great concern, community health advocates point to some positives. Local law enforcement has been putting more resources toward “crisis-informed training,” which helps to prepare first responders in dealing with mental health disorders.
“We don’t necessarily need more counselors and programs, because they’re already out there and have availability,” said Skolaski. “The way services are delivered may have changed when many treatment providers moved to telehealth, but counselors and programs exist for those who are struggling.”
“Getting that information out to the community is critical,” said Bassing-Sutton. “The way that services are delivered has changed, but it is available and effective.”
She noted there are “self-help opportunities that are happening via different video platforms like Zoom.”
“If you are concerned about your alcohol or other substance use, or if you are noticing a change or increase in a loved one’s habits, 211 is a great resource for finding services and programs,” Hilker said. “Reaching out to friends and others in recovery, like a sponsor (if a person has one), [is] also critical in this time.” The 211 program is a referral service sponsored by the United Way.
What’s happening today in Oshkosh and across the country was predictable, and was in fact predicted by three psychiatric researchers writing six months ago in JAMA Psychiatry, a journal of the American Medical Association.
They identified nine factors that suggested a “perfect storm” scenario for people with mental health problems during the pandemic. Those factors were economic stress, social isolation, decreased access to community and religious support, barriers to mental health treament, illness and medical problems, news coverage, suicides among health professionals, firearm sales and seasonal trends.
While acknowledging that public health measures to address COVID would likely exacerbate mental health issues, the JAMA researchers did not think that easing mask mandates or social distancing guidelines would be the answer. Instead their article called for “a comprehensive approach that considers multiple U.S. public health priorities, including suicide prevention.”
They also pointed out that rising suicides are not a foregone conclusion even during the time of a national disaster. Suicides fell, in fact, after Sept. 11, possibily because of something called “the pulling-together effect.”
“Individuals undergoing a shared experience might support one another, thus strengthening social connectedness,” they said.
“As community members, it’s more about creating a supportive community to help people when they’re struggling and continue to offer programs, events and opportunities that help support people in their recovery or who are struggling with addiction,” said Skolaski.
Help is available.
If you or a loved one needs help, there are many resources available. These include:
The National Suicide Hotline (800-273-8255)
Iris Place (staffed by certified peer specialists) 920-815-3217
HOPELINE (emotional support text line) text HOPELINE to 741741
United Way 2-1-1
Winnebago County Crisis Intervention Helpline (920) 233-7707
NAMI Oshkosh Inc. 920-651-1148 or firstname.lastname@example.org