The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all aspects of life to change, and that includes local government services that help members of the public deal with issues like mental health.
At a time when many are struggling with anxiety, isolation and other mental health challenges, we wanted to find out how local services have adapted and what they’re seeing from clients.
NSPR’s Angel Huracha spoke with Holli Drobny, Mental Health Services Act coordinator and public information officer for Butte County Behavioral Health, and Paige Greene, deputy branch director of Adult Services for the Shasta County Health and Human Services agency, to learn more about how they’ve been operating over the last couple months.
You can read or listen to highlights from their conversations below.
Q&A: Holli Drobny, Mental Health Services Act coordinator and public information officer for Butte County Behavioral Health
On how her family has been coping with pandemic
Like most people, I think our family has been learning a new normal, and trying to navigate the distance learning for the kids and accommodating our work schedules. And I would have to say that some days are harder than others. We've all faced moments of disappointment with the new reality that we're all facing. But personally I'm just trying to focus on being flexible and accepting of the situation, which is easier said than done.
On how Butte County Behavioral Health services have been adapted during the pandemic
So our agency is fortunate that the state order recognizes behavioral health services as an essential service. And what I mean by behavioral health is it's really a term for mental health and substance use disorder treatment. And so we've been able to continue to provide services virtually, when it's appropriate, like doing screenings and assessments over the phone or providing therapy through video chat. But there still are some services that we provide that require face-to-face contact, such as our in-patient facility and our crisis services. But we are making sure that our staff are able to implement all the recommended safety precautions for these types of services.
Not only have we had to make accommodations but many of our community providers have also altered their operations. And we have all had to become pretty creative with how we can continue to support our community. And it's actually been really inspiring to see everyone adapting and changing.
On what face-to-face services are still being offered
What I mean by the face-to-face services — those are for those who have an urgent level of care that they need, for those who are in an emotional crisis, who need to be able to be seen, our crisis stabilization unit, which is an outpatient stabilization unit, and then we also have our 16-bed psychiatric health facility here in Butte County. And so that's providing hospital-like setting services and using the necessary precaution and all the necessary equipment to make sure everyone's staying safe.
On the county’s experience with unprecedented events
While this is an unprecedented event, it's not the first time that Butte County has faced an unprecedented event. And so I would say if there's any silver lining to be taken away from our past experiences with disasters is that we have some experience in this department. We know that our community is capable, we know that we can rise to the occasion, and we have the knowledge that we are resilient and strong.
On whether there’s been an increase in people utilizing online services
Yeah, I would say so. And that's mostly because we've had to provide more services online. So we have seen an increase in those online services just because they have been expanded.
On what kinds of things people have been struggling with
Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. And I think it's important to understand that and to normalize that reactions are going to be different depending on the person. But I can say that many people are feeling anxiety, worry and fear. Some people are saying that they feel very lonely and isolated with this social distancing, and then there are also some reporting an increase in frustration over the uncertainty of the future, as we can all understand and relate to.
We're seeing many people reach out to our virtual peer support groups that behavioral health provides. And we are hearing similar accounts from our contracted providers. A really great example is the Northern Valley Talk Line has been able to expand its hours of operation from five hours a day to 10 hours a day. And that phone number is 855-582-5554.
On who Butte County Behavioral Health serves
Butte County Behavioral Health serves individuals who have Medi-Cal or who do not have insurance, or anybody who is in an emotional crisis. Our outpatient clinic is still taking assessments over the phone. So if you or a loved one is interested in seeking treatment for mental health or substance abuse and you have not before, there's still an opportunity to engage in services.
Our access and crisis line is available 24/7. Counselors are available if you would like to talk or ask questions about treatment options. We also have a peer support group available via Zoom. That's Monday through Friday, and all the information relating to services can be found at ButteCounty.net/behavioralhealth.
On the effect of the pandemic on Butte County residents
When social distancing and self quarantine are needed to limit and control the spread of the disease, the continued social connectedness that is required to maintain mental health and substance abuse recovery are critically important. So I just want to urge people to consider virtual support although it is unconventional, it is still very effective. So if you or your loved one are experiencing symptoms of extreme stress, such as trouble sleeping, problems with eating either too much or too little, inability to carry out routine, daily activities, or even using drugs and alcohol to cope, I encourage you to speak to your healthcare provider or call one of the hotlines that we have listed at ButteCounty.net/behavioral health.
On the promise of virtual services going forward
I think that sometimes there are barriers to getting treatment, such as transportation or maybe childcare issues that can stop someone from walking into a clinic, and that the virtual services have the ability to overcome those types of barriers. I think most people already use social media to feel connected or to share their experiences. And so they already have that technical skill to be able to navigate the virtual treatment as well.
On how news consumption affects mental health
Research does show that 24/7 media content tends to increase anxiety or worry. So one of the recommendations for situations such as these is to stay up-to-date on what is happening, but while limiting your media exposure. And you can do this by designating just one or two times of the day to review the news and then turning off notifications so that you can put your attention to the rest of your day. I think it's also, when we talk about media consumption, it's important to remember that children are especially affected by what they hear and see on TV and being very mindful of that, and their exposure to the media.
And for those who just can't stay away from the news, it's really important that you can lean on your support group when you can, you can talk about your experiences and feelings to your loved ones and friends.
I want to urge you to try to maintain a sense of hope and positive thinking. And one tip for doing that is to consider keeping a journal where you can write down things you're grateful for, or things that are going well. Another great tip is to relax your body often by doing things that work for you. So taking deep breaths, stretching, meditating, praying, engaging in activities that you enjoy. Those are going to be very helpful in helping you cope with all of that media consumption.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.
Q&A: Paige Greene, deputy branch director of Adult Services for the Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency
On how services have changed since the pandemic hit
For the most part, most of our services across the agency continued, but maybe in a lesser or a different way. But at adult services, we have continued with our in-home support applications, continue to take applications. In mental health, they continued to see clients face-to-face and we continue to do 5150 evaluations. We still do that. We're continuing to provide services, whether it's telephonic or face-to-face. Adult Protective Services continued to get allegations of abuse that they had to respond to. So they continue providing that, as well as with our Public Guardian continuing to make sure that clients are safe and taken care of. So most of our services have continued, like I said, only it might be at a lesser amount. But for the most part, we've been business as usual.
On how clients are responding to online services
We have had some of our clients who have challenges getting into services really like the online services better. Some of them don't. Some people don't have access to that. So I wouldn't say that increased, and in fact, all of our services really decreased pretty significantly in the very beginning. We were not seeing clients showing up, even though we've been open and providing services throughout the entire pandemic. It really decreased a lot and being able to reach people was challenging. And if we did, they didn't really want to engage. And so I think that kind of leads to — what we have been experiencing is that the unknown has caused people I think to just pull in, and not want to engage, just because nobody knew what was happening and all the information that was coming out kept changing. And so that's what we saw.
We saw an increase of people calling just to ask questions, as opposed to calling in crisis. We had a reduction in crisis phone calls, but we had an increase in question phone calls. And so that was something that we didn't anticipate. We thought we would see a lot more crisis type of calls.
On what people are struggling with during this time
What people are struggling with is the isolation — feeling isolated, feeling alone, feeling tired, having kids at home all the time or working at home, you know, when's it going to end? The anticipation, the fear that if you go out, something bad's gonna happen to you. So, a lot, a lot of anxiety is what we've seen with people, and again, because it's unknown, and then, you know, some say, ‘Oh, do it this way.’ ‘Wear masks,’ ‘Don't wear masks,’ you know. So it's just been such an interesting journey, just trying to figure out how to help people to deal with their anxiety.
And for people with mental illness, isolation usually is not in their best interest. And so we've seen some people become challenged and you know, it challenging their mental health in that way, because we work really hard to help them to stay social. That's one of the interventions that works well. And with this, it didn't really lend itself to supporting that.
More on how people are struggling with mental health
It comes down to anxiety. People become anxious when they don't know what's happening. And when they're confused and you get different opinions, so you're not sure who to trust or who to believe. And when it's your health and the health of those you love, it — of course — it's important, and they pay special attention to that.
For our community, I think what we are seeing is people wanting to get back to normal, but normal as we knew it isn't going to be, and so it's hard. Again — how do you imagine that? How do you move forward and develop a new normal when that looks different to everyone? And so it tends to increase agitation and decrease tolerance, and so hopefully our community can tend to continue to be kind to each other. Because no one knows — this is so new, this so unprecedented, they don't know what the answers are completely, what it'll look like, but we do know some things health-wise that come out from our public health department that tell us about what we do know. So trying to take that information and applying it in a practical, mindful way is important. But it's hard because people have different different opinions about what it should look like.
On how the community should move forward
Just knowing that everybody's trying to do the best they can, assume positive intention. I don't think anybody is trying to take advantage or do something negative to anyone. And I think it does help, for some of it, it's allowed us to spend more time together and as a community, we're bonding over this disaster — which we know that overcoming adversity builds resilience, and so the fabulous thing about this is — this is gonna make us a more resilient community, just like last year, we experienced the Carr Fire. This is different but the same in that as a community, we're overcoming this. And we will overcome this. And we'll just continue to be more resilient as a result of it.
On the promise of continuing to make use of virtual services
We have a new CIO here in Shasta County. And he has suggested to us to kind of as a county to look at the future a little bit and look at telecommuting, or virtual services that we are using now, that we think have been helpful as, you know, a serendipitous experience that we went, ‘Wow, we would have never know that if we didn't experience it.’ And so how can we move forward in the future and continue that? So yes, I do believe that health services — we know that it's moving in that direction, you know, more virtual services. And so for the government as well, to be able to come alongside that, I think is fabulous for us to be able to have that flexibility, because we need to. Because it's about meeting our clients where they are. And as times change, we also have to make those adjustments. So being able to use it, where it's helpful, and that it helps clients and I think it's a fabulous idea. And even for our staff, will be helpful for our staff as well. I know it has had a direct effect on how we'll do business in the future here in Shasta County.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.