A mental health tsunami is building


The ongoing worldwide pandemic is colliding with unprecedented social injustice and unrest, wreaking havoc on our hearts and minds.

It’s like two virtual tectonic plates colliding in the ocean, only in this case, the destructive wave will cross every generation and impact every socio-economic community.

As a result, we are on the verge of the most significant mental health crisis of our generation.

Early effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are surfacing. Twenty-five percent of young adults (ages 18-24) said they seriously considered suicide within the last 30 days. In June, 40% of adults said they struggled with mental health or substance abuse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People are dying even without contracting the virus but from the associated stress. A recent study by Cleveland Clinic conducted during the initial peak of the pandemic showed an increase (7.8%) in stress cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome.” The stress from coronavirus is causing a physiological strain on our bodies.

Survivors of disasters, both natural and humanmade, teach us that the full consequences of trauma do not peak until long after the distress starts to ease. The pandemic is increasing PTSD, depression, anxiety and associated conditions like substance use and suicide.

We know that Michigan is significantly impacted by the nation’s opioid epidemic, experiencing an opioid overdose death rate of nearly 1.5 times greater than the national rate. A recent study found that only 20% of Michiganders with a substance use disorder receive treatment, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In addition, young minds are particularly vulnerable to suicide because substance use affects brain development, and more than 70% of adolescents in substance use treatment have a history of trauma.

At Wedgwood Christian Services, our trained substance use treatment clinicians are fervently reaching out to clients. These are people we know, but we haven’t heard from in weeks. Reports indicate that relapse has increased. We fear that the tsunami has taken them.

To protect our community, we need to be aware of the emerging effects now and take action.

Emerging effects and treatment

Young minds are vulnerable to the destructive effects of trauma, but the good news is that youth can display positive changes more quickly than adults.

The pandemic accelerated the use of telehealth. By embracing this technology in fresh and innovative ways, mental health counseling programs have seen an increase in engagement for many children and families, and it has reduced overall no-shows by circumventing logistical barriers. A child in one of Wedgwood’s residential treatment programs, through telehealth, can connect with family and the therapist simultaneously to keep the treatment program going.

However, it takes an exceptional talent to gauge how to connect with the families in a virtual format. Wedgwood clinicians get creative, such as using selfie sticks to give the individual a different perspective as they both focus on a separate screen together. Unfortunately, impoverished families more often struggle with poor network connections and access to technology. A child with only his mom’s phone to use might get interrupted with numerous calls, texts and notifications during one session — this is especially difficult during intense sessions. Using telehealth demands new and evolving skills to enhance the well-being of children, adults and families traumatized by the pandemic and ongoing civil unrest and violence.

Wedgwood was quick to implement these new techniques and is committed to continuing to provide access to quality services wherever our clients may be through unique and creative means. One thing is for sure, telehealth will become more and more central to all our health care needs.

Take action

Here are some things you can do now:

  1. Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma and seek help early. Trauma-focused care is complex but the symptoms of trauma are treatable.
  • Shock, denial, or disbelief
  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating
  • Anger, irritability, mood swings
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Feeling disconnected or numb
  1. Ask for help. Ensure the care you choose provides well-trained staff that are informed by best practices and evidenced-based therapies, e.g., Seeking Safety, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (TF-CBT), Motivational Interviewing and Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach.
  2. Keep it Fresh and Fun: An engaging therapeutic approach creates the opportunity for reflection, life evaluation, and change. Those who fully engage and stay in treatment significantly increase the possibility of long-term positive results.
  3. Research has shown that the use of Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), such as Suboxone, combined with counseling, decreases opioid and opioid-related deaths, increases retention in treatment and improves outcomes. Make sure any MAT service includes a coordinated team approach, which includes the doctor, case management, recovery coach, group counseling and individual counseling.
  4. Proximity matters. The pandemic accelerated the use of telehealth, but there are still advantages to having your treatment provider nearby, including the possibility of transitioning from telehealth to in-person counseling if deemed safe and appropriate. Select a local mental health provider that has a strong physical presence in your community.

Experts in the mental health field can empower us to do more than just “hold on” and survive during a mental health tsunami; we can grow stronger through adversity and thrive.

A story of hope

A teenage girl came to Wedgwood after attempting suicide while struggling with depression and a history of abuse. She spent a year in our residential program, where she was able to heal. Her journey involved honoring her feelings and emotions instead of stuffing them away, learning how to manage those intense feelings and how to advocate for herself.

During that year, when she finally was able to experience some peace; she started drawing again, something she hadn’t done in years. One of her caregivers noticed her talent and provided additional supplies and encouragement. She applied to art school. Shortly after graduation, she received her acceptance letter to art school along with a full scholarship. Her life was transformed.

Mental health challenges derailed “Sammi” early in life, but active treatment and care at Wedgwood helped her find a path of hope for a bright future and the tools to navigate that future.

Sammi is an inspiring example that anyone, from anywhere, at anytime, can find help, hope and recovery.

Dan Gowdy, Ed.D., is president/CEO of Wedgwood Christian Services. For 60 years, Wedgwood has supported and restored the physical, social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual well-being of children, adults, and families in the community. He can be reached at dgowdy@wedgwood.org.

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