Mental health hotline users spike amid coronavirus pandemic: 'People’s worlds have been flipped upside down'

Kristyn Martin
·5 min read
Crisis intervention organizations across the nation have seen a dramatic surge in anxious people seeking mental-health services amidst the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Getty images)
Crisis intervention organizations across the nation have seen a dramatic surge in people seeking mental-health services amidst the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Getty images)

Crisis intervention organizations across the nation have seen a dramatic surge in people seeking mental-health services as anxiety grows about the coronavirus pandemic.

“Many people are feeling anxiety or fear, or an acute sense of vulnerability if you happen to have respiratory vulnerability or are immunocompromised,” Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and an assistant clinical professor at Harvard University Medical School, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So it feels like people’s ...worlds have been flipped upside down in just a couple of weeks.”

The Crisis Textline, a non-profit that provides free peer counseling via texts to those experiencing a mental health crisis, has seen a 116 percent spike in the volume of texts received in the last week due to coronavirus.

Related: Social Distancing Could Negatively Affect Mental Health, Experts Say

“Seventy-eight percent of all of our texters are experiencing anxiety related to the coronavirus,” says Ashley Womble, head of communications for the Crisis Textline. “We’re also seeing a lot of anxiety around specific symptoms. The top words right now that our texters are using are ‘symptoms,’ ‘fever,’ and ‘cough.’ And so people are very concerned that they may have the virus.”

Womble says they also receive a lot of texts because of newfound financial worries. Thirty to forty percent of Crisis Textline’s users are of low income. In the past week that number has spiked to 55 percent making $20,000 or less a year. “It's not impacting all Americans equally. There's definitely some socioeconomic differences with what we're seeing in our texters.”

Empower Work, a free national nonprofit crisis line that is geared to helping underrepresented workers including low-income or working moms, says there’s been a 197 percent increase in volume of users in just the last week.

“We're seeing a range of issues and they're moving quickly,” Jaime-Alexis Fowler, founder and executive director of Empower Work, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Everything from people concerned about risking their health and going in to work to, of course, fear of job loss.”

Adds Duckworth, “Unemployment leads to things like depression, anxiety, and suicide. It's well established that recessions are bad for mental health.”

He says that since the pandemic hit the United States, telehealth sessions with therapists are on a dramatic rise, and adds, “Don't assume you can't get support because you can't really leave your house much.”

In Massachusetts, where Duckworth is based, he says all psychotherapy services are available via telephone or telehealth services and are carried by all insurers including Medicaid— and adds that 95 percent of his colleagues have switched to these methods.

Since every state is different, he suggests visiting to see what remote mental health services are available by state.

Duckworth says that the goal shouldn’t be to try deny your anxiety, but to try and manage it. For that, he recommends some basic tools, including the following:

Exercise: “Exercise down-regulates your body and sort of acts as a natural beta blockade for your system,” he says. “So people's heart rates go down after they exercise. And this is calming. So that's one core strategy.”

Sleep: “Sleep is important because it recharges you.”

Watch out for “automatic catastrophic thinking”: “Don't imagine every catastrophic potentiality. Humans will do that because we are wired to anticipate problems,” he says. “Really pay attention to your thinking and don't allow your thinking to become extremely catastrophizing.”

Womble says their counselors suggest grounding thoughts and conversations around anxiety within a time frame — in other words, to focus on what you’re doing today or in the next few days without thinking too far into the future. “We know that this is a moment in time that will eventually pass,” she says. They also encourage reaching out to a support system, either virtually or physically, noting that 40 percent of those reaching out to Crisis Textline are also turning to their pets for that support — even more so than those reaching out to their mothers, which makes up about 36 percent of users.

And there’s an upside: both Womble and Fowler say their organizations have received an overwhelming uptick in those wanting to volunteer. Empower Work has seen a 26 percent increase in volunteer sign-ups in the last week.

Crisis Textline is committed to doubling its capacity to help those with mental-health needs, aiming to hire 33 more people and planning on recruiting 5,000 new volunteers by April 30th. Both organizations do in-depth training of their volunteers to become peer counselors.

“Our crisis counselors, because they're at home and they're ready, they want to help.”

Fowler says Empower is making a real difference, but that the first step is to reach out. “We also see a lot of courage and pride and conviction and incredible strength in the people who reach out to us. And so even though they’re in really tough circumstances, you can see the human spirit that comes through.”

For mental health support, try one of the following:

Crisis Textline: provides 24/7 support for those in crisis. Text 741741 from anywhere in the US to text with a trained crisis counselor.

Empower Work: Text 510-674-1414 and get connected with a trained peer counselor within 2 minutes during business hours (8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. PT every weekday.)

National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline: 1-800-950-6264 Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6p.m. ET

Covid-19 mental health resource page

For the latest news on the evolving coronavirus outbreak, follow along here. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.

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