Psychological impact of COVID-19 ‘is real', ongoing concern for health experts

Health experts warn the next pandemic will be surrounding mental health and substance use disorders

ROANOKE, Va. – The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, but health experts warn the next pandemic will be surrounding mental health and substance use disorders.

During a virtual news conference on Tuesday, Dr. Molly O’Dell with the Virginia Department of Health and Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare CEO Debbie Bonniwell spoke about the toll the coronavirus has taken on everyone’s mental health.

“I think the psychological footprint of this pandemic is real and it’s manifesting itself in so many different ways,” said O’Dell.

Bonniwell said that the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA, saw an 891% increase in hotline calls in March 2020 compared to the same time last year.

In the Roanoke Valley, Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare saw a 25% drop in crisis calls and a 50% drop in new clients seeking telehealth or in-person services.

”Those things concerned us very much,” said Bonniwell. “Those numbers stay pretty stable for us over the years. So what it told us, is that people were not seeking services either out of fear of getting COVID or fear of going to an emergency room.”

Locals like Dana Pitts from Salem and Austin Parkhurst from Botetourt County said they are just trying to keep a positive mindset.

“Overall, we feel like we’re hanging in there and doing the best that we can,” said Pitts.

“I have a lot more time to focus on exercising and eating right,” said Parkhurst.

A new CDC mental health survey specifically designed to assess the impacts of COVID-19 found about 30% of adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety from April to June this year, compared to just 8.1% during the same time-frame last year.

Bonniwell said that the most at-risk populations are minorities and frontline healthcare workers, but she is worried about anyone who needs help and isn’t asking for it because, she said, it’s OK to not be OK.

“Remembering how that you survived other difficult times in your life can sometimes give you the motivation to say, ‘I did that. I can do this,‘” said Bonniwell.

For a list of mental health and substance use disorder resources and hotlines, click here.

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