The effects of COVID-19 on mental health are a growing concern across the U.S. as loss, isolation and financial hardship take a toll.
Some researchers point to a likely increase in substance abuse or suicide down the road as a result. Others expect an increase in anxiety or depression.
With those same hardships being felt in Yakima, Virginia Mason Memorial plans to launch a free emotional support phone line to address mental health concerns in the community.
“It’s a time of crisis for everyone,” said Diana Tellez, a bilingual licensed independent clinical social worker with Memorial’s palliative care. She’ll be the lead on the phone line, which is still in the planning process.
“I think there’s a big need for it ... There’s just a lot of emotional distress, a lot of uncertainty, and I think ... anxiety levels are high for everyone,” she said.
Locally, the loss of loved ones or sudden decline in their health has created unexpected grief for many. There had been 67 deaths caused by COVID-19 as of Tuesday. Even among those who recover from the respiratory virus, it can be life-altering impacts, health experts say.
Calls to organizations like the YWCA Yakima reporting domestic violence have been steady since the virus’ arrival.
Yakima County unemployment claims have also soared past rates from the 2008 recession.
As people take measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the support systems they might ordinarily rely on are less accessible.
But emotional support can have a positive impact both on recovery from the virus itself and a person’s future well-being, said Diane Patterson, Memorial’s chief clinical officer.
Through the COVID Emotional Response Team phone line, callers will have bilingual access to grief and crisis management counseling, as well as referrals for long-term resources through community partners.
Anxieties in patients and providers
The project began out of a realization of the toll mental and emotional health was taking on local patients and providers.
Nurses had told Memorial leadership of subtle cues they were picking up from patients.
“Particularly anxiety, and what that does to their oxygenation rates, which is critical in the pathology of this disease,” Patterson said.
Nurses have spent hours with patients, helping them video-call family or friends to maintain a sense of connection and quell anxieties, she said.
These connections are also important to the well-being of those on the other end of the calls, who might be struggling with how to process their loved one’s declining health or their potential loss without being able to be with them in person, said Rebecca Lee, Memorial’s senior manager of palliative and hospice care.
Memorial, along with other hospitals, has limited visitors in order to prevent the spread of the virus. This impacts non-COVID-19 patients and family members, as well, creating a widespread need for help processing the situation.
The hospital also noticed an uptick in calls to the employee health line seeking emotional support.
Lee said several factors could play into staff feeling a need for emotional support. Cautionary practices around COVID-19 patients mean doctors, nurses and aides no longer have the same physical connection with patients that they used to.
“It changes people’s framework on feeling like they’re making a difference,” said Lee.
What’s more, those working directly with COVID-19 patients are at times unable to have contact with their own families due to isolation practices to prevent the virus’ spread.
“Their level of support has massively changed,” Lee said. “So giving them emotional support is necessary, because they’re on the front lines and they’re dealing with this every day.”
When these trends arose, Patterson said it reflected a larger need in the community.
“With the 2,800 employees that we have here at Memorial and being the largest employer, we know that our experience is what the community is experiencing,” she said.
Launching a phone line
Patterson asked Lee to organize a community support line, since palliative and hospice care workers were already familiar with providing grief and emotional support in their work.
The hospital partnered with the Memorial Foundation to fund a free phone service, which is expected to launch in the coming weeks and pilot for six months.
Tellez was asked to lead a team to staff the line. She’ll work full-time on the project, with the support of others ranging from social workers to chaplains.
Callers should be able to connect with someone in English or Spanish during weekday office hours, or leave a message.
Tellez said she was excited to work on the project not only to address crisis management and grief support over the phone, but also to help point community members to local or national resources that could further help them.
“There’s a lot of resources out there that people don’t know of and when you’re in crisis mode you don’t have time to look into this, so it’d be nice to have a line you can call and have people help you,” she said.
These could include long-term counseling services or help accessing relief programs.
As need is assessed, the hours of the phone line might be expanded. The Memorial Foundation is also in discussions with two organizations outside the Yakima Valley interested in funding expanded emotional support services due to the high rate of COVID-19 cases here.
Yakima County had the highest COVID-19 case-rate on the West Coast as of May, in part due to a large population of essential workers.
Erin Black, chief executive officer for the Memorial Foundation, said the hope is to make the service known and available in the various pockets of the Valley to meet all of the community’s needs.
“COVID-19 is so different for each family. The emotional toll can be so unique,” she said. “I always think of this as sort of a long-term care of our community, because you think of … how impactful it is in terms of our long-term health to make sure we are addressing any emotional needs as they come about.”
This story has been updated to correct Black's title.