COVID-19

Long Beach Struggling With Mental Health Issues As Pandemic Drags On

As Summer was unwinding into Fall, Katie Trainor was struggling. She was dealing with issues familiar to many of Long Beach’s half a million residents as the COVID-19 pandemic reached its six-month mark. 

She and her husband were able to hold their jobs, but her company laid off a lot of people during a stressful period. Their son was all set to start Kindergarten at their neighborhood school in the Fall, but with both parents working they weren’t sure how to manage virtual learning and ended up keeping him at his preschool.

“I was doing the best I could but feeling bad at everything, work, being a mom,” she said. “There’s no boundaries, there’s no room for yourself.”

Trainor felt overwhelmed. With a history of serious mental health issues in her family, she knew she needed to reach out and talk to someone. She started calling around trying to find a therapist.

“I was leaving voicemails, I was playing phone tag, just trying to make an appointment,” she said. “It took a month.”

An overwhelmed system

The reason that it took Trainor so long to get an appointment with a therapist is that a drastic increase in demand for mental health treatment has not been met with an increase in supply. Katherine Erickson is the owner of Incredibly Inspirational, an East Long Beach-based practice with a dozen licensed therapists.

“In March we were getting three or four calls a day, now we’re getting 15-20 calls a day,” said Erickson. “People are calling sounding pretty desperate. My agency is at capacity and I really try not to turn people away but it’s to the point where everyone’s caseloads are full.”

It’s not just a local problem. A study by Brown University estimates that a quarter of Americans are currently experiencing depression, more than triple the number before the pandemic began. A study by the CDC in June said that 40% of Americans were struggling with some form of mental health issue or substance abuse, another significant uptick.

These trends have been made worse, according to experts, by the economic and unemployment devastation wreaked by the pandemic, and the fact that there’s no concrete end to the pandemic in sight.

“There’s a huge increase in need across the board,” said Jolissa Hebard, the Director of Outreach for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Long Beach chapter. “A lot of people for the first time are experiencing real depression and anxiety, and some people who were teetering have been pushed into a full-blown episode or a diagnosis. Those ramifications are going to keep coming–we worry about people taking their lives, that danger zone.”

Hebard said the effects of the shutdowns and distancing regulations have had brutal consequences for some Long Beach residents, including those in a domestic violence housing group that NAMI LB works with.

“Typically they can fit two families into one unit because they each get a bedroom,” she said. “Now half of those families aren’t able to be in there. You’re seeing families put back into a situation that is dangerous for them–not only their mental health but their physical safety. It’s about weighing out risks. If someone can say, ‘I’m okay with the risk of getting Covid if I don’t have to stay in my abusive home,’ that should be an option for them.”

Weighing risks

It’s a difficult position for mental health advocates and care providers, who don’t want the science surrounding the threat of COVID-19 to be ignored–but who also don’t want the science around mental health risks ignored either. It’s a balance of risk assessment that is part of the impossible task handed to the office of Kelly Colopy, Long Beach’s Director of Health & Human Services.

“There’s a lot of conversation about it,” said Colopy. “You have a whole family home all day when they never have been. We’ve heard that there’s likely increases in domestic violence and child abuse but that the reporting structures and how you identify it have been sort of cut off. Then you have folks who are home alone and isolated and who’ve lost connection. It’s elevating anxiety. In all these different ways we’re hearing anecdotal stories about the impact across our community.”

Unlike the COVID-19 numbers, which are tracked in great detail and updated daily on the city’s website, there’s not really a non-anecdotal way to track the mental health challenges of the city. Colopy pointed out that most public mental health services are provided through Los Angeles County, not the city. “We aren’t through that and we can’t track increases and service levels,” she said.

Colopy also said that while the city has very visibly marshalled resources to fight COVID-19, people should understand that the mental health component of the shutdowns has been a part of the conversation as well. She’s hoping that universal mask wearing and social distancing will help further drive the numbers down.

“There’s such easy ways we can bring it down but we’ve had to be in this lockdown space for so long,” she said. “I’m very concerned about people who own business and who aren’t employed. All of that impacts your mental health.”

A plan for improvement

Asked what they’d like to see done differently in the city, Trainor, Erickson, and Hebard all gave a variation of the same answer: more public messaging about the mental health challenges facing the city. Depression and anxiety aren’t contagious, unlike COVID-19, but they are omnipresent.

“I would just say as a regular person, as a human being, I don’t think there’s enough acknowledgement that this is happening to everyone, this sense of exhaustion and bleakness,” said Trainor. “I’m constantly reminding myself that even though I’m super stressed out and sometimes I just start crying, that everyone is dealing with it.”

Trainor pointed out that the emails she receives regularly from her city council representative include frequently-updated death counts and rates on the virus, but nothing about depression or anxiety.

“Let’s get some PSAs, let’s get some bus ads with crisis text lines,” said Hebard. “We need outreach to let people know that they’re not alone in this.”

Colopy said that Long Beach’s HHS has received that message loud and clear.

“We’re getting ready to do a campaign,” she said. “There’s a flyer getting ready to go out in all of our utility bills in October that has phone numbers and where you can call, so you know what to do. And we have a resources page on our website.”

The city’s school district is acting too, as the LBUSD has made individual counseling available to all students through its Family Resource Centers, with walk-in appointments available at their four locations Monday through Friday.

“Worth the effort”

Colopy emphasized that while many may be having trouble getting an appointment with a therapist, there are availabilities–the city lists mental health providers on their website.

“More resources are available and there may be even more because of telehealth options,” she said. 

Erickson and Hebard both said they’ve heard from many who don’t feel comfortable doing telehealth because they’re “zoomed out.”

Trainor said that she was glad she stuck it out and found a therapist she could speak with.

“I think it’s like the airplane safety instructions, you have to put your own mask on first, you have to take the time for yourself or you can’t be there in the right capacity for other people,” she said. “It felt like something cracked open and there was just so much relief. Even just having the hour for just dealing with me, and the things I can control. It was worth the effort.”

Individuals looking for mental health support can visit the city’s website at longbeach.gov/mentalhealth for a list of local mental health providers, call their insurance provider, contact the Department of Mental Health at 1-800-854-7771, or text “LA” to 741-741.

Mike Guardabascio
An LBC native, Mike Guardabascio has been covering Long Beach sports professionally for 13 years, with his work published in dozens of Southern California magazines and newspapers. He's won numerous awards for his writing as well as the CIF Southern Section’s Champion For Character Award, and is the author of three books about Long Beach history.
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