ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The COVID-19 pandemic has caused or exacerbated mental health issues locally and across the nation.
The Belmont County Commissioners discussed this when they recognized Mental Health Awareness Month on Tuesday.
Lisa Ward, executive director of the Belmont County Mental Health and Recovery Board, reported to the commissioners Tuesday and spoke about the importance of taking care of one’s mental health and reaching out to family, friends or professionals for anyone experiencing depression or anxiety.
She did not have Belmont County case numbers from 2020 and 2019 at hand but said she has noticed an increase.
“I think our total system has been going through a great change since the pandemic. I would say that we have seen an increased number of what we call crisis calls, people requiring some additional resources and assistance,” Ward said. “We’ve seen an increase in substance use. Individuals who have never turned to alcohol or drugs before have been during this time of isolation and uncertainty.”
She added that partnerships with county agencies continue to be valuable.
“The agencies come together and try to pull their resources together to try to make sure we’re aware of what each agency has to offer and how to get access to services,” she said. Technology has been helpful in meeting increased needs and is creating new kinds of therapy.
“With telehealth, accessibility of services are a little easier,” she said. “Our providers have had great success using Facebook Live and other Zoom technology to continue to reach out to individuals, especially our youth to keep those engaged, as well as our older population.
“There’s been some challenges. Certain parts of our county still don’t have access to internet that allows for good coverage, but telehealth has eliminated barriers such as transportation or not wanting to come out of the house,” Ward said, adding they are balancing situations where meetings are in-person when necessary and via technology when possible. “There are certain diagnoses and certain things that we treat that need a little closer monitoring.”
In answer to a question from the commissioners, Ward said increased needs have been seen statewide.
“Around the state of Ohio, they’ve seen a 20 percent increase in the number of individuals with depression and anxiety disorder, especially among the youth,” Ward said, adding she believes Belmont County has had a similar increase. “The school systems, they’re definitely seeing youth who struggle now that may not have had those issues a year ago, before the pandemic.”
Ward said she is expecting more cases as many who have been through 2020 feel more effects going forward.
“What we’ve been waiting for is what we’ve been calling that surge,” she said. “I think there’s a lot more yet to come, and every community, that timing’s different.”
Commissioner J.P. Dutton commented that some school programs such as athletics may get back to normal, but other functions might not reach their prior level.
“Just day-to-day in school it’s instilled a different environment in terms of how much social relations,” he said.
Commissioner Josh Meyer also mentioned the ongoing socialization needs of older Belmont County residents and the efforts of Belmont County Senior Services to reach out to isolated seniors. Ward said more outreach may be launched once the senior centers reopen.
“They have probably been affected greatly by this, but they may not be on the front line asking for help,” Ward said.
Another issue is workforce shortages in the mental health field, possibly leading to a situation where state and federal funds are available for local programming but agencies are unable to recruit workers.
“That is very much a concern right now at a time we should move forward,” she said.