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  • The Narrative Project

Crisis Makes Huge Demands on our Mental Health

By Mercy A Quaye

March 29, 2020

A doctor provides telehealth visits at a hospital in California.
Photo courtesy of CTInsider

By now you’ve probably felt it. Being in isolation for too long makes the walls close in and the air feel hot and still. Many of you are looking for things to do outside, which explains the congested parking lots at public parks around the state. Others may be finding it difficult to leave the house at all. As day after day passes with slow determination, you’re going stir crazy and realizing that watching the up-to-the-minute updates doesn’t help the way you thought.

If it feels like things are spiraling out of control and you’re finding fewer and fewer ways to cope, overworked therapists and long waitlists to be seen prove you’re not alone.

I spoke with my therapist this week for the first time in two years — but it wasn’t for a session. I called because, to me, this pandemic seems poised to force a mass mental health crisis to couple the approaching economic crisis and I wanted to understand why.

Kyisha Velazquez, licensed professional counselor and owner of KV Training and Consultation in New Haven, said she’s noticing a pattern develop. During this crisis, she said, everyone fits neatly in three categories: Those who aren’t taking this pandemic and its ripple effects seriously; people who take it seriously and are coping fairly well; and those who are experiencing heightened levels of depression, anxiety and even mania in response.

Hoarding toilet paper, panic eating, even road rage in recent weeks can all be attributed to a number of underlying mental health concerns that may be exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Part of therapy is to help people come up with a plan to counteract the uncertainty,” Velazquez said. “Some people will have a plan no matter what happens. For others, that’s the role we play. We’re doing emergency preparedness to help patients because you can’t be in control of everything, but you can always prepare for the worst-case scenario and everything else is easier.”

Therapists across the state are in high demand. Recognizing the impending need to support as many people as possible, Gov. Ned Lamont issued an order early this month suspending the requirement for licensure. This action ensures that a slew of health care providers are able to aid as many people as possible while the state is in emergency response mode.

But even with relaxed requirements and moving all in-person meetings to online sessions, some providers are running into issues that’ll inevitably impact service.

“We might be working for free right now,” said Dr. Carrissa Phipps, licensed psychologist and owner of Small Victories Wellness Services in Middletown. “The main issue right now is that Connecticut has telehealth parity, which means the state requires commercial insurance companies to cover telehealth services for whatever in-person benefits they typically cover. But we’re finding out that it’s not that simple.”

After moving all her clients to telehealth sessions, Dr. Phipps ran into a complicated issue that may leave therapists and other mental health service providers deciding between treating patients in need or getting paid during a recession.

According to Phipps, if an employer creates their own plan and has a larger commercial company carry it out, that commercial company is exempt from certain state mandates such as Lamont’s push to cover telehealth. As such, hundreds of Connecticut residents could find themselves not covered for services they were receiving last week, just because the session happened over the internet. To resolve those issues, Dr. Phipps reported spending more than four hours of her workday on the phone to confirm a patient’s coverage.

“I’m obviously not going to not treat my clients right now especially while we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “I’m just not going to hold them to their co-pays. And granted, there are people who don’t have any option to work from home, so I’m not complaining.”

She might not be, but the rest of us should.

For years progressives have been demanding improvements to our health care system that would have resolved problems like these before we were forced to test their efficacy in the thick of a pandemic. The frustration from that alone could muster anxiety whether you already suffer from it or not. But if you do, both Velazquez and Phipps say the coming weeks may be triggering.

“We’re in for a huge influx of folks needing support in multiple ways,” Phipps said. “We’re in for people experiencing all kinds of lack of resources and uncertainty, which we know leads to anxiety, trauma and depression. We’re not even at the peak of all this and they’re not protected right now.”

Both agree that for those suffering from OCD and anxiety, two disorders that are triggered by lack of control, the uncertainty of the pandemic will present daily difficulties with coping.

“The one thing I would say is that during this time of crisis, let’s not judge people,” Velazquez said. “Let’s be mindful that everyone’s dealing with this differently and it may not be easy to pinpoint the differences.”

Velazquez reported working a 60-hour week and has created a crisis hotline for patients coping with our new normal. The small sacrifices each is making are reminders of the need for mutual support during the uncertainty of it all.

But right now I’m left wondering — who’s taking care of the people who take care of us?

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