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Local Experts Stress Mental Wellness Amid Pandemic

UnityPoint Health / OSF HealthCare
Ted Bender, left, president of UnityPlace, and Luke Raymond, manager of behavioral health for OSF HealthCare

Peoria health experts believe the COVID-19 pandemic is having a detrimental impact on mental well-being for many people, causing an increase in stress, anxiety and depression.

“We’re facing an invisible enemy that one of the ways to try and beat it or contain it is to not be around other people,” said Ted Bender, president of UnityPlace, the behavioral health and addiction services branch of UnityPoint Health.

“So that’s going to create a significant amount of isolation and loneliness. It’s producing a rise in depression and anxiety that we’re seeing across the nation, and also a rise in suicide attempts, completed suicides, near-death overdoses and overdose deaths, quite predictably.”

Luke Raymond, manager of behavioral health for OSF HealthCare, notes the uncertainty and fluidity of the situation is making matters worse.

“The pandemic has created a really strong sense of fear and worry among the general population, which is exacerbated for those who already have pre-existing anxiety and depression,” said Raymond. “I think what’s most impactful is the sense of ambiguity.

“We don’t know how bad it’s going to get, we don’t know how long it’s going to last, and we don’t know what the outcomes are going to be," he added. "There’s just so much unknown that it’s very difficult for people to get a grasp on it.”

Access to mental health services also has been impacted by COVID-19, limiting in-person treatment. But Bender and Raymond note many healthcare providers have been able to offer alternatives.

“Many organizations have really pivoted to being able to provide virtual or digital care,” said Raymond. “If folks are not comfortable going out of their homes to obtain care for a mental health problem, they can access behavioral health services virtually.”

Identifying the signs of a worsening mental condition are key to getting help for someone who needs it. Behavior that greatly differs from an individual’s normal routine can be an indicator.

“If somebody is typically an irritable person and they are still irritable, it might not be a sign that something is amiss,” said Raymond. “A really important thing to pay attention to is if an individual loses interest in activities or events that they typically find meaningful, if they’re just sort of ‘meh.’”

“Maybe you’re kind of a nervous person to begin with and now that nervousness and anxiety is causing trouble in your everyday life,” said Bender. “Any kind of significant changes of behavior warrant further investigation.”

To date, according to Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood, the number of suicides he has seen in 2020 is down to 10 compared to 17 from the same timeframe last year, while overdose deaths are equal at 21. However, Raymond said the suicide rate has been on the rise consistently for more than a decade while Bender cited an increase in suicide attempts and near-death overdoses.

“It’s something we need to be mindful about paying attention to, particularly now,” said Raymond. “If you think someone’s at risk for suicide, as hard as it is, ask them the question directly. Often what happens is we’re afraid of having that conversation because we feel we might put that feeling into their head.”

Instead, Bender said, scientific research clearly indicates asking someone if they might harm themselves is beneficial.

“It’s actually helpful; it sends a message ‘hey, I’m here. I’m concerned. I’m here to help. You have an ally,’” said Bender. “So, first and foremost, if you are concerned, ask them. If you’re still concerned and they’re not willing to do anything, get advice from professionals.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24 hours a day on its website or by calling  1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

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