Mental health professionals brace for surge in crises

As anxiety peaks, some see helping others as a way to self-help.
Kameela George, an intervention specialist at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay answers calls to 211 during the COVID-19 crisis where she provides emotional support and information about community resources.
Kameela George, an intervention specialist at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay answers calls to 211 during the COVID-19 crisis where she provides emotional support and information about community resources. [ The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay ]
Published April 25, 2020|Updated April 25, 2020

TAMPA — Lindsay Bard didn’t used to worry. Just a few weeks ago, things were looking good.

She and her husband, Chris, helped run a popular fast-casual restaurant at Tampa’s International Plaza mall. They had 75 employees and business was bustling. Then, like so many others, they were forced to close when the coronavirus crisis hit.

It broke her heart to let employees go. Money dried up. Sitting home, unemployed for the first time in her adult life, she felt anxiety creeping in.

Then a friend suggested she could make meals for the staff of Gracepoint Wellness, a nonprofit mental health facility in Tampa. Four weeks in, she and Chris center their days around the Gracepoint kitchen, making enchiladas, soups and stir-fries for hundreds of mental health professionals on the front lines.

Routine brings a sense of normalcy, and by helping others, Bard is helping herself. That has never been more important than now.

Mental health professionals nationwide are bracing for what is expected to be a surge in people with behavioral health needs in the wake of the pandemic. Already, there are hints in the numbers.

A Gallup poll in late March and early April found that 60 percent of American adults reported experiencing daily feelings of stress, up from 46 percent in a poll in July and August. Americans experiencing worry rose 21 points to 59 percent. The polling company called the findings unprecedented.

Locally, Tampa has seen a dramatic increase in crisis calls to 211, the hotline run by the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, which helps connect people with a variety of services including mental health and substance abuse resources.

During the first week of March, before nationwide shutdowns began, COVID-19-related crisis calls to 211 numbered in the single digits. The week after that, there were 15 calls. And in the third week of March, as state and local governments ordered massive closures and millions lost their jobs, calls shot up to 161.

Callers discussing COVID-19 who also report thoughts of suicide have also increased dramatically from just a handful in early March to more than 40 in the first week of April.

“What we’re afraid of is that once this crisis has peaked, we really believe there will be a behavioral health crisis like we’ve never seen before,” said Clara Reynolds, chief executive officer of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.

A mother calls for help getting food for her children who would ordinarily get meals at school. Another caller worries about deferring mortgage payments and ever being able to make good on the money owed.

“These folks are seeking us in a time of real embarrassment,” said Mordecai Dixon, director of Gateway Services at the Crisis Center. “They’re not feeling very good about themselves some days.”

At Gracepoint, the types of crisis calls have changed.

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“It’s more folks that are scared,” said Roaya Tyson, Gracepoint’s chief operating officer. “They’re losing their jobs, their homes, their sense of security. They’re asking, ‘What do I do?’ A lot of them are self-medicating.”

One person sent a message to Gracepoint’s website saying they lost their job and there wasn’t enough money for rent.

Can you help me? I can’t be on the street with my family, the person wrote.

Employees of Gracepoint Wellness in Tampa are screened for signs of illness as they arrive at work on April 23.
Employees of Gracepoint Wellness in Tampa are screened for signs of illness as they arrive at work on April 23. [ Courtesy of Gracepoint Wellness. ]

“I think the longer this goes on, the more scared and desperate people are going to be,” Tyson said.

Public records reflect the dire nature of some situations.

A woman in east Hillsborough County grabbed the family cat, locked herself in a bedroom and phoned the sheriff’s office after her husband went into their backyard and fired guns into the ground. When deputies arrived, they learned the man had become depressed after losing nearly $400,000 in the stock market. He’d been drinking for hours, his wife reported. The deputies took the man to a mental health facility under the state’s Baker Act.

In Pinellas County, a man took his own life in late March. Authorities were told he’d been concerned about COVID-19 and said he believed it was the end of the world.

In some cases, the crisis has brought problems to the surface that people were previously able to ignore, said Natasha Pierre, vice president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Hillsborough County.

“When there’s extreme stress, it can be a breaking point for many people,” she said. “Coronavirus isn’t causing mental illness. It’s only creating stress and heightening what’s already there.”

So how can people cope in a time like this?

In immediate crises, there are resources like 211, or the NAMI HelpLine, at (800) 950-6264, which can offer support and resources in the community.

In remote group therapy sessions, Pierre said, a theme has emerged about taking stock of small blessings — a roof over one’s head, the affection of pets, the ability to take a walk or enjoy a laugh.

Bard, the restaurant manager, has talked to her employees and tried to help them file for unemployment. She dreads the thought of how long the crisis might last.

“The hardest thing for me is the unknown,” she said.

For her, coping has meant finding a new routine.

Lindsay Bard prepares meals for the staff of Gracepoint Wellness in Tampa.
Lindsay Bard prepares meals for the staff of Gracepoint Wellness in Tampa. [ Courtesy of Gracepoint Wellness ]

The daily focus of bringing meals to Gracepoint’s staff is a welcome diversion. She and Chris have made about 3,900 meals so far. They get food donations from Publix and U.S. Foods. The employees are grateful, as some of them now support families on a single income. They can’t leave for lunch.

In uncertain times, the meals are something they can count on.

“We have to support each other to come out of this,” Bard said.

• • •

Need help?

The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay can be reached by dialing 211 or by​. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out to the 24–hour NationalSuicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741; or chat with someone online at ​​.

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