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COVID exposes need for more mental healthcare

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Times Herald-Record

Odyssey Fields

The stresses and strains of the pandemic have tested a lot people’s mental health these past two years. Therapists, social workers and other counselors report they've been overwhelmed with patients.

COVID interrupted individual and family routines with stay-at-home orders,working from home, mask mandates, homeschooling, social distancing, job loss and more.

And that led to a rise in anxiety and depressive disorders in adults and teens, therapists say.

"There was such a need. It was overwhelming," said Patricia Quinn, an art therapist with an office in Warwick. "So I stayed open and also still did Telehealth."

Quinn is a licensed creative art therapist and board member of the Orange County Mental Health Association.

Art therapy, which uses self-expression through art, is a way for people to work through their issues. "It can be drawing, painting, clay, wood, fabric, it can even be food," Quinn says. "Art therapy can be mixed with music, it can be mixed with poetry, or story-telling. It can be mixed movement."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from August 2020 to February 2021, the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders increased from 36.4% to 41.5%, and the percent of those reporting unmet mental health care needs increased from 9.2% to 11.7%.

While the need grew, Orange County, like other places in the country, had already been seeing a shortage of mental health care specialists in 2019. This, according to the Health Professional Shortage Area, a tool used by the Human Resources & Service Administration to find shortages of work by counties across the nation.

Understanding the need

"Most important when it comes to symptoms of mental illness, you should be able to identify that it’s what you’re experiencing and reach out and ask for help as quickly as possible," said Darcie Miller, Orange County Commissioner of Social Services and Mental Health. "It leads to better recovery if you get treatment very timely for when symptoms begin," Miller said.

As people began experiencing more stresses, and the demand for mental health care grew, practitioners began offering waitlists to potential patients. Some completely halted taking on new patients.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the use of remote learning and online Telehealth sessions. But virtual sessions have their limitations.

Quinn had been cautious about bringing patients into her office, but felt she had to respond to the need. “In June, I decided to open my practice back up with COVID precautions. The need for services was very high and the reason I resumed in-person services is because I see a lot of children. You can do some of that online, but it is very difficult,” she said.

In her practice, working directly with clients can have a more direct impact. "The symbolism of art and imagery transcends verbal understandings or the story we tell ourselves, so an image can tell a lot," Quinn said. "The way that it is drawn, the things that are emphasized, the size of it, how it gets explained by the artist – that can just reveal a lot of information about where the anxiety is coming from or the depression, or any conflicts the person is dealing with."

Among the issues people were facing, counselors and therapists saw a spike in young teens going through gender transition.

Randi Barlow is a licensed clinical social worker in Monroe and leader of Transgender Family Alliance for Support and Teaching. "There was such a marked increase in mental health needs, especially in the area of my specialty. I work with children, teenagers and adults who are experiencing gender dysphoria and who are exploring their gender identity," Barlow said.

Barlow began her career as a registered music therapist working with children with special needs. Over the course of her career, she focused on families and young adults experiencing gender dysphoria. While along this path, she started the Transgender Family Alliance for Support and Teaching (TFAST). This group gathers once a month and is a meeting for families of people who are transgender and gender non-conforming.

"It was interesting to know that many kids were starting to come out as either transgender or non-binary. Families were in great need to reach out," Barlow said. "Lots of children who do have gender identity issues can feel somewhat isolated and alone and of course, the pandemic magnified that for them. I was seeing lots of kids struggling and lots of people with increased anxiety and depression."

Barlow and her husband, Bob Barlow, host the TFAST support group, which allows family members the opportunity to ask questions, share experiences as well as provides a therapeutic session.

How to get help

Orange County offers a 24-hour crisis call center for support with mental health, substance abuse, developmental disability and sexual assault. The call center is staffed with trained and licensed professionals 24/7. The county also offers hotlines for those who need telephone support including suicide prevention and drug abuse.

Reach the Crisis Center by dialing 311.

To reach the suicide prevention hotline call 1-800-273-8255.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Patricia Quinn's license. She is a licensed creative art therapist.

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