GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — There is no doubt that our mental health has been tested in one way or another over the past year.
“We know that every single person's mental health was a factor, whether it be that it was the masks, it was the isolation, it was having to create a new way to work, it was my kids not going to school,” said Christy Buck, executive director of the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan.
“We cannot deny that every single person was affected in the past year," she said.
Recent research backs up that reality. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, nearly half of adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, up from one in 10 in 2019. Specifically, they found a 12% increase in alcohol consumption or substance abuse. Even more alarming, the CDC found that one in four young adults have considered suicide.
“I think it's brought to light to how much we need to make sure our neighbor, our brother, and sister is okay mentally,” said Elizza LeJeune a social worker at Pine Rest.
“Our mental health affects so many things that ignoring it is just a burden on society. And I think that COVID has really put a light, a year later, of how much we need to be in tune with how work affects our mental health; how connections, relationships as well, our health in general, can affect our mental health.”
Pine Rest says that they saw in 2020 an increase of roughly 15% in overall inpatient admissions and about an 8% increase in total outpatient visits, with more than 95% of those sessions conducted via telehealth.
LeJeune says telehealth – meeting people where they are at -- takes away barriers. It has changed the landscape for mental health services and accessibility for patients.
For Kristen Schimmel, seeing a therapist was a hard step to take as a mother of three, but she started seeing her therapist at Pine Rest years ago. Now she says she is thankful for the work she continues to put in. Virtual sessions two times a week have helped get her through this past year. Without that, she says, things would have been much harder to handle.
“My therapist, the one thing that she always tells me is you can never pour from an empty cup. And that's very true,” Schimmel says. “You might think you're doing the best you can, but if your cup is empty, if you're exhausted, if you're just burnt out, you're not doing anybody any favors.”
Dr. Debra Pinals, the Michigan Director of Behavioral Health and Forensic Programs, says the StayWell program began when the state of emergency was declared in March 2020 after the state was awarded a grant through the federal government to focus efforts on mental health.
StayWell is a multifaceted program that fields almost 400 calls a week from people trying to reach a Stay Well counselor. Since May 2020, more than 1,300 people have used the Michigan Crisis text line. Also, more than 20,000 people have called the free peer warmline for people living with serious mental illness or substance abuse.
“After a traumatic experience, there are ways that we can kind of improve and learn from the experience and move towards the positive,” Dr. Pinals said. “Maybe one of the things that will happen is it will de-stigmatize the conversation around mental health.”
“I think that this pandemic, obviously, is going to change us forever in terms of how we think and our experience, and we're already putting in planning around sustainability,” Pinals continued, pointing to expanding service that will be available. “We're building out a crisis line -- a crisis and access line in Michigan -- that will hopefully be statewide. We're piloting it in the couple of regions to see how it works. But it will be a way for people to be able to call and get referrals […] separate from Staywell.”
“There's hope out there a year later from COVID, and the pandemic and the shutdown,” notes LeJeune at Pine Rest. “We're all kind of like in this zone of just trying to get through the next day, the next year, the next month.”
"Mental health is just as important as physical health,” said Dr. Pinals.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Free, confidential support from a Michigan Stay Well counselor: 888-535-6136 and press “8”
Michigan Crisis Text Line: Text RESTORE to 741741
Pine Rest Contact Center staffed 24/7: 800-678-5500.
BeNice action plan for when you know someone who needs help