Pandemic boosts demand for mental health resources
Janelle Clevinger | Special to the Times
Executive Director Nancy Sallenger and Wilson Crisis Center volunteers are available to talk and offer help 24 hours a day.
• Having a mental health crisis? Call 911.
• Wilson Crisis Center 24-hour crisis line: 252-237-5156.
• Eastpointe MCO 24-hour call center: 1-800-513-4002.
Mental health provider/resource information
• Eastpointe MCO: 1-800-513-4002.
• Wilson Crisis Center: 252- 237-5156.
• Carolina Family Health Center: 252-243-9800.
• NAMI North Carolina Helpline: 800-451-9682.
Free behavioral health screenings
Special to the Times
Attention surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic has pointed out new mental health stress factors for seemingly otherwise healthy people. But even before the pandemic, the number of adults recognized as having mental health issues was increasing.
According to Mental Health America, in 2017-18, 19% of adults in the United States experienced a mental illness, an increase of 1.5 million people over the previous year’s data. Of those people having a mental health problem, only about 40% actually sought help, and even then ,they often waited more than a decade before reaching out.
Eastpointe MCO is the managed care organization that handles state funds and coordinates health care for children and adults in eastern North Carolina who struggle with mental illness, substance abuse and intellectual developmental disabilities. Eastpointe, which helps individuals who are enrolled in Medicaid or who cannot afford health care, actually saw a 30% decrease in calls from Wilson residents seeking help during the second and third quarters of 2020. The fourth quarter of 2020 showed a dramatic increase of more than 44% in calls to the Eastpointe call center.
“Call volumes declined sharply during the first full quarter of the COVID pandemic,” said Courtney Boyette, Eastpointe community relations specialist. “We are pleased to see the increase in calls after the first two quarters of stay-at-home restrictions.”
Eastpointe is a starting place for those seeking behavioral health services in the Wilson area, especially if the person seeking help has Medicaid or is uninsured.
“Eastpointe connects individuals who are either uninsured or have Medicaid to providers contracted to accept their benefit plan to deliver behavioral health services,” Boyette said. “We typically offer individuals a choice of at least two providers based on their care needs, location and the benefit plans accepted.”
PHYSICAL, MENTAL HEALTH
Growing in popularity is the trend of treating mental health side by side with physical health. Studies have proven that one’s physical health can have a direct effect on mental health and vice versa. Misconceptions about mental illness can create a stigma that often keeps people from getting help.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety can affect a person’s ability to take part in healthy behaviors, such as getting outside and taking part in exercise programs. On the other side of the coin, physical health problems can make it tough for people to get the treatment they need for mental disorders.
Depression is so widespread that the World Health Organization has projected that by 2030, it will be the leading cause of the global disease load.
“COVID has provided yet another reminder of how closely — and powerfully — physical and mental health are connected,” Boyette said. “Eastpointe has launched several initiatives designed to deliver whole-person care to our members, including working with our providers to embed mental health screenings in the provision of primary care and working with our members to address social determinants of health.”
Some mental health issues can wait until an appointment with a professional is made, but some people reach a point in their mental health status where a full-blown crisis occurs.
“If a person contacts Eastpointe in crisis, the individual’s benefit plan is irrelevant,” Boyette said. “We immediately determine the best way to stabilize the crisis, which may include dispatching mobile crisis management, emergency medical services or law enforcement.”
A crisis can mean different things to different people. Just ask Nancy Sallenger, executive director of the Wilson Crisis Center. She receives calls ranging from crises relating to the weather and unpaid bills to people actually threatening to harm themselves or others.
“Sometimes in a crisis, the best thing to do is get someone to the emergency department of the hospital,” Sallenger said. “Sometimes that’s what it takes to defuse the anxiety, and there is a section of the emergency department here at Wilson Medical Center just for that.”
Wilson Medical Center has a dedicated 24-bed behavioral health unit that offers adult and geriatric stabilization services.
“Our multidisciplinary treatment services include 24-hour nursing care, individualized treatment, recreational therapy, medication management, stress management and individual, family and group therapy,” said Melanie Raynor, director of marketing and communications.
What Sallenger and her volunteers do 24 hours a day and seven days a week is listen to the people who call.
“That’s what the crisis center does,” Sallenger said. “We listen, and we share good, reliable resource information. And people call us because they know we will answer 24 hours a day.”
“You have to listen and discover the underlying issues going on with people,” Sallenger continued. “Losing a job, for example. People don’t know where to turn to for help and information, so we give them the basic information in layman’s terms and provide them with a verified, accurate number and person to call.”
The crisis center takes pride in treating every caller as an individual.
“You have to think outside the box with every case,” Sallenger said. “Nothing in life is set in stone. You have to listen, and you don’t judge. There is never a yes or a no answer when you’re talking about mental health. You have to have them give you their information so you can help guide them based on their individual situations.”
Key to the crisis center’s successful interactions is following up with callers after their initial conversations.
TELETHERAPY TO THE RESCUE
A large percentage of behavioral therapy patients were, at one time, not at all keen on teletherapy, a form of therapy that uses technology to help the therapist and client communicate, whether simply over the telephone or using Zoom, FaceTime or another form of online connection. Some clients believed face-to-face sessions built stronger connections with their therapists.
Now, teletherapy has become the norm because of quarantining and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has not only assisted in continuing the care of therapists’ current clients but has also opened the door to those hesitant to be seen in a counselor’s office or those with social anxiety.
“Telehealth has been a convenience for a majority of people and offers a lot of flexibility for both the therapist and the patient,” said Rasheede Hicks, a licensed clinical mental health counselor at MindPath Care Center in Wilson. “It has opened the door for people whose social anxiety kept them from wanting to go to an office or even leave their house. They say, ‘I don’t have to leave my home, I can speak confidentially, and I don’t have to be around others.’ This has truly been an asset for them.”
Hicks also noted that for others, teletherapy helps if they can’t leave work for therapy appointments. Now they can use their lunch hours and don’t have to take the time to travel to the therapist’s office.
“A lot of people have trouble with transportation,” Hicks noted, “and for those who live in rural areas, telehealth has become essential.”
During the pandemic, the need for behavioral health therapy increased, Hicks said, but many would-be clients couldn’t find a professional accepting new patients or a new patient appointment would be months down the road.
“It depends on the therapist as to whether they can add new patients to their schedules,” Hicks said. “But if there is no flexibility and a therapist just works 9 to 5, for example, it won’t free up schedules. There are lot of ways to be seen by psychiatrists and therapists now, so you just need to find the right one. Telehealth has helped a lot with that.”
Hicks also noted that many people need mental health services but can’t afford it or don’t have insurance. She often refers people to Carolina Family Health Center, 303 Green St. E, Wilson.
Carolina Family Health Center has a behavioral health center and accepts most insurance, Medicaid and Medicare, and provides discounted fees based on income, individual payment plans and a sliding fee discount program.
Carolina Family Health Center provides grief and loss therapy, one-on-one coaching, depression and anxiety screenings, substance use treatment, chronic disease management and medication-assisted treatment.
Hicks also refers callers to Pride in North Carolina and Carolina Outreach, both with offices in Wilson.
Counselors and doctors working together to provide specialized therapies to their clients in Wilson is something Hicks would like to see happen more often.
“We actually need more resources in our local offices like art therapies and music therapies,” Hicks said. “If local therapy offices could communicate more with each other, perhaps we could share specialized therapies in our offices here in Wilson. We could host them or refer our clients to their services.”
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