As government officials scrambled to get ahead of the coronavirus pandemic this winter, mental health service providers knew it could have wide-reaching impacts unlike any crisis before it.
In response, Washington County Behavioral Health recently launched a new free counseling service aimed at helping people endure the impacts of the pandemic on addiction, mental illness and stress.
The service, which is available to anyone living in Washington County at no cost, is administered by county officials. Counseling is conducted by four local service providers — LifeWorks NW, Western Psychological and Counseling Services, the Asian Health & Services Center, and Lutheran Community Services Northwest — and offered in multiple languages.
When a disaster hits, people rally to meet the needs of the community's most vulnerable, said Kristin Burke, Washington County's human services division manager.
"But people can only sustain that for so long," she said. "After a while, it takes an emotional toll on people, and you start to see stress and you start to see burnout and depression and anxiety. And that only gets worse for a period of time, and then there's kind of a long, slow recovery. This has been a really different event in that it has been so prolonged."
Most Oregonians have experienced increased isolation as a result of the pandemic, with many workplaces shifting to work-at-home models, schools closing, and Gov. Kate Brown instituting a stay-at-home order in late March.
Some have lost their jobs. Parents have had to manage kids doing remote learning or begin home-schooling.
And some have lost loved ones, in some cases having to endure that loss without a chance to see them and say goodbye, and in many cases having to mourn that loss without a traditional memorial service.
All of that can leave people, particularly those without access to care, in a desperate mental health situation, Burke said.
Washington County officials partnered with the Asian Health & Services Center because the psychological impacts of the pandemic have had a particularly pronounced impact on members of the Asian community. Many Asian Americans and immigrants have reported instances of racism since the coronavirus, which originated in southern China, arrived in the United States.
Yu-Ling Chen, a qualified mental health professional at the Asian Health & Services Center, said clients at the center increasingly talk about their feelings of depression, anxiety, stress due to financial difficulties, a sense of lost connections, and worry for the health of family members abroad.
The center decided to take a proactive approach, which has been bolstered by support from the county.
Using a database of participants in not only the center's mental health services, but also its community events, housing services and other programs, clinicians in a response team have reached out to nearly 6,000 people to check in and offer resources, unprompted.
Chen said the center is using a program that allows clinicians, who are working at home and using their cellphones, to call people and have the phone number of the center show up on caller ID. She said people have been answering because they're familiar with the number.
"For us to actually initiate, it means a lot," Chen said. "Many in the Asian community are hesitant to reach out for many different reasons. In times like this, (the call) really gave them a comfort."
It helps simply knowing that the center is available should someone need counseling services or resources such as food, Chen said.
"For our team, validation is a big thing, and empathy is a big thing, so as we tell them, 'Yeah, it's very scary,' I think, for them, it calms them down," Chen said.
She said their outreach has also helped more serious cases.
One man contacted by the center was a recent immigrant to the United States who was released from a psychiatric hospital in early March and had no place to go.
"No family members, no support and he doesn't really speak English," Chen said.
The response team was able to provide online counseling and case management, help stabilize him emotionally and access food, transportation, and affordable medication, she said.
The center has been offering counseling services in Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Korean.
More than 70% of the people the center has contacted have been over the age of 60, because the response team has prioritized vulnerable people.
A survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this month found that 14% of people had high levels of psychological distress, compared with an average of 4% prior to the pandemic. The survey sampled 1,468 adults using a psychiatric questionnaire.
Burke said county officials wanted to make the counseling service available to anyone, including people who have never had a mental health diagnosis.
People who call won't be automatically given a mental health assessment, diagnosis or treatment plan by one of the providers, but if a service provider thinks those things are necessary for someone, they might recommend them.
"It's going to be much more about in the moment support for somebody who maybe is having anxiety but doesn't have an anxiety disorder," Burke said.
She said the program is tentatively set to run through February 2021 at a cost of $800,000 to $2 million. The county has applied for a grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency that might pay for a substantial portion of the program.
Burke said the program will be flexible, allowing counseling service providers to scale up or down their services based on the need they observe.
The true mental health impacts of the pandemic aren't yet known, she pointed out.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.