EASTON — While many are resuming some aspects of their lives this coming week as Gov. Larry Hogan’s stay-at-home order is eased, an insidious crisis is brewing in the Mid-Shore community.

The isolation created by COVID-19 has created the perfect storm in mental health. Growing desperation has increased suicide rates and the recurrence of substance use disorders in local communities. While the reasons are complex, everyone can play a part in the solutions.

For the last five years, For All Seasons counselors have been seeing clients at Tilghman United Methodist Church through a program called “Healthy Tilghman.” The program provides healthy mind, body and spirit outreach in the Tilghman community focusing on a peer support network in the community, as well as counseling and community education.

Michael Flaherty, Ph.D., a psychologist who practices in Pennsylvania and has national expertise in addiction and mental health issues, helped found “Healthy Tilghman” and knows his community and the difficulties it is facing.

“Under the stress of confinement, the world becomes smaller and small things become big things, and sensitivity becomes higher,” Flaherty said. “This can mean that small environments can make people act out in greater ways.”

“Nationally, there has been a 7% to 10% increase in recurrences of substance use disorders since COVID-19,” Flaherty said. “While there have not been any overdose deaths yet in Talbot County, there have been overdoses. Statistics show that 20 percent of overdose deaths are suicide-related. With fragile people, it is going to happen. We need a higher degree of patience and understanding during this time.”

To date, Healthy Tilghman has had success reaching the Bay Hundred community to provide support for mental health issues and addiction. Community volunteers have been the eyes and ears of the community, connecting people to necessary resources, and people are using telehealth services more and more to receive therapy and support.

“Although we are making strides, people are still experiencing anxiety and depression during this crisis and using substances for coping,” Flaherty said. “Some of the reoccurrences of the illness are because of confinement and not having support. People are finding it hard to cope. A lot of people didn’t realize they had such a dependency on substances and are finding that their dependency is greater during this time.”

Flaherty said that some signs and symptoms of someone contemplating suicide may include:

  • making plans to commit suicide by giving things away or finalizing a will
  • becoming increasingly withdrawn
  • experiencing increasing despair and a sense of hopelessness
  • sleep disorders and mood swings
  • a recurrence of substance abuse with drinking and drugging

Family members are often the first-line responders in these situations. Connecting people to peer support specialists can make the real difference in someone getting the help they need.

Valerie Albee, founder of Mariah’s Mission, and a family peer support specialist in Easton, has been on the front line helping families cope with the challenges of substance use disorder both virtually and in-person while social distancing.

“These are trying times for many,” Albee said. “I offer as much hope as I can for people, but it is a complicated issue and there is difficulty right now getting people timely treatment.”

She explains that while there is now a proliferation of online 12-Step meetings through virtual technology, the isolation created by COVID-19 has affected families with addictions and mental health challenges. Stress, fear, joblessness and other factors have contributed to increases in relapses both fatal and non-fatal.

“These individuals and their families are not strong enough to deal with this crisis by themselves, and they have immediate needs,” Albee said. “Managing household resources and maintaining the quality of life for a loved one suffering from a substance use or mental health disorder is very challenging.”

Both Flaherty and Albee agree that individual and family peer support specialists can be vital in assisting people in crisis. Family support specialists like Albee have had training and lived through personal experience dealing with a loved one in crisis. Peer support specialists have personally lived with substance use challenges and found recovery.

Flaherty said that the question to pose to the person in crisis is, “What will it take to get you to connect to services?” He said that people should keep encouraging a family member or friend to make the call to receive help, and if the person is unable to care for themselves, they should call one of the crisis hotlines on behalf of the person. Their personal experience, along with extensive training can provide vital help.

Beth Anne Langrell, CEO of For All Seasons Behavioral Health and Rape Crisis Center, said, “We want family members and friends to know that they don’t have to solve the problem, but they can help connect people to community resources.”

For All Seasons is expanding its messaging around suicide during Mental Health Awareness Month,” Langrell said. “By following the steps: Ask how a friend is doing, listen to what they have to say, and share that you care about them and you know where to find help, family members and friends can be the crucial first step to getting help.”

“The mental health community has strengthened the delivery of services and is improving access to information, which is having a positive impact through this crisis,” Langrell said. “The list we have compiled of resources can be a lifesaver when faced with any of these crises.”

For All Seasons provides therapy, advocacy, psychiatry, and education to Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties. The agency accepts all private insurances, medical assistance, and supports English and Spanish speaking individuals regardless of one’s ability to pay. For All Seasons 24-Hour, confidential crisis hotlines are 410.820.5600 for English Hotline and 410-829-6143 for Spanish Hotline. Text available in English or Spanish at 410-829-6143.

Follow me on Twitter @connie_stardem.

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