Ivy Zamora, a therapist with Lutheran Social Services, primarily serves children with mental health challenges. But increasingly, she’s hearing from their parents, too.
“There’s a frustration and helplessness that sets in that can be overwhelming for people,” Zamora said.
Zamora isn’t deterred. She is setting up phone and video calls with the kids she normally sees at their schools, and their families. She’s listening and sharing coping mechanisms, while also connecting families with resources for food, gas money, school supplies and other needs through the new LSS Response Fund.
Zamora and hundreds of mental health workers around Wisconsin are finding creative ways to stay in touch with patients and expand what they offer while anxiety rises and traditional support services shut down.
Health experts say it’s too early to tell how extensively the pandemic is impacting mental health but there are already indications of rising symptoms of anxiety and depression, and more calls to support lines.
At Children’s Hospital, a greater portion of youth coming to the emergency room are being treated for self-inflicted injuries, compared to this time last year, according to Amy Herbst, vice president of mental and behavioral health.
“I can’t say it’s necessarily caused by isolation but we certainly believe there’s a correlation,” Herbst said. “There are tremendous stressors in many families’ lives right now.”
Dr. Jerry Halverson, chief medical officer at Rogers Behavioral Health, said the hospital has seen increased demand for inpatient mental health care as other avenues narrow.
Milwaukee County’s public behavioral health hospital, which recently confirmed several people on the campus had tested positive for COVID, shut down its children’s unit from March 16 to April 23.
Halverson said patients are reporting difficulties reaching their usual mental health providers. He said patients are also avoiding other hospitals out of fear of COVID-19. This can cause symptoms to escalate.
“COVID has uncovered a lot of folks that had depression and anxiety prior to this,” Halverson said. “It’s been very stressful and it’s not surprising we’re seeing continued and increased demand for psychiatric treatment.”
The Waukesha Police Department, which provides details about police calls to the Journal Sentinel, has responded to more emergency calls related to mental health. Some callers have specifically noted challenges with isolation or cohabitation during the pandemic.
Baumann said unless someone is urgently suicidal, Waukesha police officers are referring callers to IMPACT 2-1-1 and other community resources.
But with day treatment programs closing, therapists locking their doors, and hospitals pivoting resources to COVID-19 treatment while being more cautious with admissions, many of the traditional routes for mental health support are unavailable.
Video therapy now broadly available
As orders for isolation started sweeping the country, mental health providers knew they needed a way to keep in touch with patients. Some had already experimented or were well practiced with tele-health platforms that allow providers to securely and privately talk with patients via video.
But there were barriers. Before the pandemic, Medicaid only paid for tele-health in specific circumstances. Patients had to be at a clinic, hospital or nursing home while calling their provider. And the provider had to work for a certain type of clinic.
On March 17, dozens of mental health advocacy organizations and practitioners signed a letter asking state officials to remove those barriers. Officials responded. Patients can now video-conference with their providers from home — whether the provider works for a clinic or works independently.
These changes will be permanent beyond the pandemic, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health Services said.
‘That existential feeling of loneliness’
Tele-health has been vital for Zamora, who serves students in United Community Center’s charter schools. It’s allowed her to keep in touch with families in possibly the most critical time, while day treatment programs and hospitals are taking fewer mental health patients.
One parent Zamora works with, an undocumented immigrant, was laid off from her restaurant job and is caring for both her child and her mother. She’s been without income for several weeks.
“For her there’s an increase in anxiety and some depressive symptoms,” Zamora said. “That existential feeling of loneliness in the world and feelings of isolation from co-workers and friends. And now people are counting on you and you can’t meet their needs.”
Zamora hopes the mother will benefit from the LSS Response Fund. And Zamora is trying to help her shield her child from the stress as much as possible.
“The virus has strained families in a different way than they may have historically experienced stress in the past,” Zamora said. “We’re trying to do a good job of helping kids not absorb and internalize those adult concerns.”
As tele-health becomes the primary, and sometimes only, way to access a therapist or psychiatrist, some patients are left behind because of limited internet or technology.
In central Wisconsin, therapist Kris Koplitz has recommended some families park outside libraries to access internet for therapy sessions.
In Milwaukee, providers at Sixteenth Street Clinic have found some clients are running out of minutes on their phones and lacking computers, tablets or smart phones to access other tele-health platforms, said Maria Perez, vice president of behavioral health.
‘No matter when they call, I pick up’
With some long-time mental health supports suddenly disrupted, mental health providers are working long hours to ensure their clients don’t feel alone.
Our Space stopped taking new residents at Parachute House, a temporary residence for people in emotional distress, but reopened April 27. The organization also closed its drop-in center which offered support groups and other services.
Our Space workers like Mark Ploeckelman, Jr., are still visiting clients and setting up calls.
“No matter when they call, I pick up,” said Ploeckelman, a certified peer specialist who coordinates care for residents of Highland Commons in West Allis, an apartment building for people with mental illness and substance use challenges.
“They can call me at 3 a.m. and I’ll get up out of dead sleep and be like, ‘Hello this is Mark.’ And they’ll be like, ‘I can’t believe you picked up, I thought you’d be asleep.’ And I’m like, ‘I was, but you called.’ “
Ploeckelman said residents have been wanting to go to hospitals for inpatient care more often than usual, and he’s trying to calm them down and keep them safe at home when possible.
“I want them to know I’ll be there every day as normal as I can be,” he said.
Koplitz, who serves students in the Colby and Abbotsford school districts, has also found ways to stay connected to families.
Koplitz usually uses her office plants as props for mindfulness exercises. Now that she’s switched to tele-health, she gives her students a list of natural materials, like twigs and rocks, to find and bring to their video appointment, at which they will practice mindful observation with the five senses.
Campos, who works as a nurse and has legal guardianship of the children, said Zamora has helped her children practice patience and empathy.
“I’m the one that gets the benefits because they’re doing so well at home,” Campos said. “It’s a blessing and I hope more families that need the help are able to access it.”
Zamora said while the pandemic has caused deep stress, it has also illuminated the strong relationships neighbors have built to support each other financially and emotionally.
“These families have historically had to rely on each other,” Zamora said. “There’s a lot of banding together, sharing of resources. There’s really a lot of tenderness.”
Mental health resources
- Milwaukee County 24-hour crisis line: 414-257-7222. When needed, a mobile team can meet adults and adolescents anywhere to talk and connect them to resources.
- Pathfinders 24-hour line for youth in crisis: 414-271-1560
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
- HOPELINE: For emotional support, text “Hopeline” to 741-741
- IMPACT 211: Call 2-1-1 for information and referrals to a wide range of community services
- Sixteenth Street: Call 414-672-1353 to set up an appointment with a mental health provider
- Milwaukee Health Department: Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Resources
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: COVID-19 Resource and Information Guide
Rory Linnane reports on public health and works to make information accessible so readers can improve their lives and hold officials accountable. Contact Rory at (414) 801-1525 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @RoryLinnane.