UMMS, Maryland, focus on mental health aspect of pandemic

As someone who initially struggled to accept his own bipolar disorder diagnosis years ago and now works to help others, Sean Driscoll knows how hard it can be for someone to recognize they are suffering.

With the pandemic aggravating mental health concerns, the peer support specialist at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry says he focuses on steering people to resources that can help.

“It’s OK to talk about your problems,” said Driscoll, who also writes songs to raise awareness about mental health issues under his stage name, Driscoe. “It’s OK to confide in people and to trust, and it’s OK to feel.”

With COVID-19 cases surging and a difficult winter expected, state and local officials as well as healthcare professionals are taking steps to raise awareness about getting help during a time of rising mental health concerns, particularly during the holiday season when the problem can become more acute.

Dr. David Marcozzi, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who is a senior medical advisor for COVID-19 to Gov. Larry Hogan, heightened attention on mental health during the pandemic when he spoke about the suicide of a longtime friend during a news conference last month.

“Let’s make sure we reach out,” he said, pausing as he spoke with difficulty. “Let’s make sure we support each other and talk to a professional if helpful.”

Maryland has seen a 30% increase in calls so far this year to the state’s 211 crisis hotline, said Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, who chairs a state commission on mental health. The lieutenant governor has been leading the panel since early last year.

“What we’ve been doing is a bit more advocating and asking people to be conscious of their own mental well-being, and if they have any concerns to seek help to talk to someone and expressing to others to reach to their friends and their family and people they haven’t talked to in a long time,” Rutherford said.

The effort shares a connection with work in battling drug overdoses, which have been rising during the pandemic. Drug-related deaths are up so far this year in Maryland. There have been 1,326 total drug- and alcohol-related deaths through June, compared to 1,215 last year, according to the health department.

Preliminary data from the medical examiner’s office shows a 13% decrease in suicides in the state from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, compared to the same period in 2019.

“While we can’t yet know for certain, a decrease in suicide rates may be attributed to an increased focus on development of Maryland’s Crisis System, including increased mental health crisis beds, increased access to substance use disorders treatment, increased marketing of support services like Maryland’s Helpline, and increased outreach by local behavioral health authorities,” said Dr. Aliya Jones, deputy secretary of the health department’s Behavioral Health Administration.

Healthcare professionals have been aware of greater mental health needs since before the pandemic began, said Donna Jacobs, a senior vice president for government relations at the University of Maryland Medical System. In 2018, the medical system held a day-long program with experts and mental health providers and started a forum every six months.

When the pandemic hit, the forums went online and have focused on mental health issues relating to COVID-19. The forums in the Not All Wounds are Visible series have created a chance for people to hear from experts and ask questions on subjects like added anxiety and stress, and how to talk to family and children about the pandemic.

One forum focused on senior citizens who might be living alone, or others who live alone and feel cut off from what they normally do.

In June, UMMS also held a two-part series on coping with racism and social justice concerns, to help address anxiety relating to protests against racial injustice at the same time as the pandemic.

One of the main messages: it’s OK to seek help.

“You don’t have to try to navigate this or figure it out on your own or be embarrassed that you have these kinds of thoughts,” said Jacobs, who has helped organize the forums.

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