By Dr. Luis Allen, staff psychiatrist at AdventHealth DeLand and medical director of the Center for Behavioral Health at AdventHealth Orlando.
Feel like you are on edge lately?
You are not alone.
The past few months have been unlike anything in modern times and have made us all anxious as we navigate an unprecedented roller coaster ride of uncertainty.
From civil unrest and protests to record-high unemployment and COVID-19 case counts on the rise, our nation is hurting, anxious and under traumatic stress.
We just moved past May, which happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month, but mental health awareness deserves to be on the forefront 24/7. The global need for mental health care and awareness has never been greater than it is right now. As the World Organization has said, “there is no health without mental health.”
Much of our attention has been spent focusing on the physical impacts of COVID-19 – analyzing every sneeze, questioning if our sore throat caused by seasonal allergies is something more, checking for fever – but the fears that accompany the virus can be just as debilitating on the mind and spirit.
Before the pandemic, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported an estimated one in five Americans coped with mental health challenges as part of their daily lives. In the present day, I believe this number is far greater.
In Volusia County, more than 50% of people surveyed in our 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment said they are most concerned about drug and alcohol addiction; more than 42% are concerned about mental health issues. That’s before COVID-19 came to town.
In Volusia County adults who report having had 14 or more poor mental health days in the last month is higher than the state average: 15.7% in Volusia compared to 11.4% in Florida.
Volusia County also has seen an increase in suicide rates and exceeds the state averages for adults coping with depression, alcoholism, as well as opioid-involved overdoses and deaths.
Living in ambiguity is enough to make anyone feel uneasy and stressed. Add to that the physical separation and social isolation we are enduring as we do our part to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and the impacts can be devastating.
By nature, we are meant to be social, so it is counterintuitive for us to quarantine and distance ourselves from others, especially family and friends. I’ve seen an increase in patients who have no previous history of mental health challenges experiencing sleepless nights and constant worry. It’s OK to not be OK right now.
I know firsthand how debilitating these feelings can be if left untreated. I sought help for my own mental health after surviving a terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, in 2008. As part of my recovery, I started running. One mile turned into a 5k that turned into a marathon. All the while, my physical and mental health improved.
For many years, mental health care has had a stigma to it – leading people to not seek care and suffer in silence in the shadows. We know the need is acute.
In the past, state funding for mental health services has been challenging. As a result, there was a lack of resources, leaving some of the most vulnerable among us to go without support for their needs.
Fortunately, there are growing signs the tide is turning – both in recognizing we need to break that stigma, and that funding is needed to do it.
Since taking office last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis have elevated mental health and made it a statewide priority. The state’s budget proposal includes increased funding for mental health, and we are encouraged by their ongoing commitment.
Here in Volusia County, AdventHealth DeLand provides a beacon of hope and healing for the mind, body and spirit, and treats substance abuse, trauma and other mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and more. In fact, AdventHealth DeLand is one of the few medical facilities in Central Florida that can accept patients with substance abuse as the primary diagnosis. I have been on the medical staff for this unit for the past 10 years and have seen patients through recovery as they work regain control of their lives and feel whole.
As part of the AdventHealth DeLand 2020-2022 Community Health Plan, we are establishing a Health Equity Zone to reduce health inequities and provide access to mental health and substance abuse services. Others in the community are spreading the message and helping end the stigma, too. We are closely working together with community residents and organizations to identify specific mental health and substance abuse service needs, which will enable our teams to continue fulfilling our mission of Extending the Healing Ministry of Christ.
There are ways you can help, too.
Think about the senior citizens in your life. The elderly face a higher risk for COVID-19 and are living more in isolation than any other population – leading to higher levels of fear, anxiety and depression. There are little things you can do to reach out to seniors to help them feel cared for and less alone. A phone call, letter, window visit – get creative. A small act of kindness goes a long way.
Consider the children in your life. They may not be able to articulate how they are feeling and process the stress and anxiety by internalizing it. This can cause physical symptoms and behavioral issues – warning signs include depression, acting out, anger, irritability, sadness, lack of sleep, and decrease in appetite. If you see these signals, consult with your child’s pediatrician.
And, most importantly, take the time to care for yourself and find or create moments of joy. Get outside for some fresh air. Walk or exercise. Do an act of kindness for others. Find a reason to laugh. It can improve your emotional well-being.
It can be difficult to speak about mental-health challenges, but we can all play a part in reducing the stigma. I assure you; it’s OK to get help.