Statewide stay at home orders, while necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus, put people with substance use and mental health disorders at risk, experts say.
Behavioral healthcare providers said individuals with a history of substance use may turn to alcohol or drugs to numb their anxiety over coronavirus and its economic impacts, and people with depression and other mental illnesses may find it hard to cope with self-isolation and disruption to their daily routines.
Self-isolation during a pandemic won’t lead to suicidal ideation among the general population, but it may exacerbate symptoms for people who are already depressed or coping with other mental illnesses, said Kita Curry, president and CEO of Didi Hirsch Mental Services, a local nonprofit clinic. She urged people to reach out to their friends, neighbors and loved ones.
“Without an end in sight, people who feel no one cares about them may grow increasingly helpless and hopeless, which is a risk factor for heightened depression and suicidal thoughts,” Curry said.
Lisa Steele, CEO of Clare | Matrix, an addiction treatment center with locations in Santa Monica and Ontario, said it will be difficult for people struggling with addiction to abstain from substance abuse while self-isolating.
“Isolation and boredom are the number one triggers for relapse,” Steele said. “That’s why when people come into outpatient treatment, one of the first things we do is structure their time every hour between the time they leave our office and when they come back to treatment.”
She said people in recovery from addiction need to continue structuring their time by participating in online counseling, 12-step meetings, meditation, religious services and exercise classes. Eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep are also critical, she said.
Didi Hirsch is continuing to treat clients via telehealth and teletherapy and has staff on site for clients who urgently need in-person care, Curry said. The organization continues to operate its 24/7 multilingual suicide crisis line (800-273-8255) which is receiving 40 times as many calls about coronavirus compared to February. Didi Hirsch is also part of Lifeline’s 24/7 crisis chat service (www.didihirsch.org/chat).
“The pandemic has disproportionately affected the homeless and low-income families who live with mental illness — the very people we serve,” Curry said. “They need us more than ever right now.”
Clare | Matrix is still accepting new patients into inpatient and outpatient treatment, Steele said. The nonprofit’s Santa Monica location has about 120 participants in its outpatient program and 200 beds that inpatient clients can use free of charge for 90 days. The organization mainly serves individuals who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, she said.
“People who are addicted to substances are at such risk of losing their lives to the substance they take,” Steele said. “We can’t close our doors.”
Nurses screen people for coronavirus before they begin treatment, taking their temperature and evaluating their symptoms in a tent in front of the building, and office space has been converted to isolation rooms for people in the inpatient program who develop COVID-19 symptoms, Steele said.
“Nobody has gotten sick yet, but in the event that people become symptomatic, we’ll have dedicated staff just for their care,” she said.
But Clare | Matrix’s supply of protective gear for nurses and admissions staff is running low, with an especially urgent need for gowns, masks and cleaning products, Steele said. The nonprofit also has to replace staff who must care for children home from school and purchase laptops for employees working remotely and is asking for donations to cover those unanticipated costs.
Still, Clare | Matrix is determined to keep treating new patients, Steele said.
“We’ll continue to take people until we’re full,” she said.
For a list of mental health resources available to L.A. County residents during the coronavirus pandemic, visit https://dmh.lacounty.gov/covid-19-information/.