N.H. mental health providers prepare for a surge in patients from COVID-19

  • Kenneth Norton Alan L. MacRae

Monitor staff
Published: 6/18/2020 4:11:31 PM
Modified: 6/18/2020 4:11:21 PM

COVID-19 swept through New Hampshire leaving friends separated, stores closed and more than 100,000 people unemployed. It seemed like the perfect storm for mental illness.

Yet, even during the height of the pandemic, helplines and crisis centers were eerily quiet.

“We’re sitting here going, okay, where is everybody?” said Karen Jantzen, the vice president of community affairs for Riverbend Community Mental Health. 

Historically, economic recessions like the one caused by COVID-19, have led to dramatic increases in the need for mental health resources. Within a year of the 2008 recession, mental health needs were four times higher and suicide rates increased 13%. 

But these effects don’t always happen immediately. Ken Norton, the executive director of NAMI, a mental health non-profit, said trauma often does not manifest itself right away. Rather, it’s often cumulative and can present itself weeks or months later. 

“People with mental illness manage to hold it together for a while and the fallout tends to come afterward,” he said. “People always talk about how difficult the holidays are for people with mental illness. When I was doing direct services, it was always mid-January when people would unravel a little bit.” 

Now, Norton said he thinks New Hampshire is beginning to see the fallout. 

In April, there were 100 more calls to Riverbend’s crisis line than in March, the highest volume of calls the hotline had seen in more than a year.  

Sarah Gagnon, the vice president of clinical operations for Riverbend, said she thinks many people have struggled with mental health during the pandemic but have avoided seeking treatment for fear of contracting COVID-19. 

“Now people are calling us in crisis because they’ve neglected their mental health needs for too long,” she said. 

As the number of calls to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline gradually climbed throughout May, mental health professionals have started preparing for an influx of patients. 

Riverbend and other mental health centers in New Hampshire are working on adding more staff to their mobile crisis team, which provides help to those experiencing psychiatric emergencies. Jennifer Mulryan, the director of Psychiatric Emergency Services at Riverbend, said she has reached out to her staff to ask them to be available at a moment’s notice to help patients. 

“We’re still waiting on that big surge,” she said. “There’s no real way of know if or when that’s going to happen.” 

Gagnon said she is particularly concerned for her clients who struggle with substance use. She said Riverbend has tried to expand resources to combat the high rate of relapse since the start of the pandemic.

Riverside also partnered with NAMI to create a suicide prevention liaison who helps those younger than 25 and at high-risk for suicide. Gagnon said many children miss their friends and school as the virus forced classes online, which could put them at risk for mental illness. 

Gagnon said she is worried, like most other mental health professionals, that a surge in patients might strain an already underfunded system. 

“But right now we’re still able to serve people,” she said. “Our doors are open and we’re ready to serve our community.” 

For Help:

■If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

■The N.H. Community Behavioral Health Association is an organization comprised of 10 community mental health centers throughout New Hampshire. The association serves as an advocate for a strong mental health system across the state. Call 225-6633.

■Riverbend Community Mental Health provides specialized behavioral health services for children, adolescents, adults and their families. Call 228-1600.

■NAMI N.H. is a grassroots organization of and for people of all ages, their families and friends who are affected by mental illness. Through NAMI N.H., you’ll meet other individuals and family members who have struggled with mental illness. Call 225-5359.

■For Substance Abuse support and resources, please call 211 to access The Doorway. 

■Riverbend’s Crisis Line is 1-844-743-5748

(Teddy Rosenbluth can be reached at trosenbluth@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @teddyrosenbluth)

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