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El Paso mental health providers adapt to challenges from COVID-19

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Before COVID-19 reached the Borderland and El Pasoans’ lives were turned upside down, mental health providers began anticipating what the pandemic’s impacts for the community could be.

El Paso mental health experts braced for how to continue to provide services while many facilities closed when stay-at-home orders were imposed in March and social-distancing safety measures made it difficult to provide in-person treatment.

The pandemic brought on a slew of challenges, including fears of contracting the virus, isolation, anxiety, stress, depression, economic struggle for thousands that lost their jobs and grief for those that lost loved ones to COVID-19.

Dr. Fabrizzio Delgado, division chief for the psychiatry consult service at Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, said at the onset of the pandemic, acute stress in the community was seen through panic buying and hoarding.

Dr. Fabrizzio Delgado

Shoppers began panic-buying toilet paper, canned goods, bottled water and cleaning supplies such as Lysol and hand sanitizer in the early months of the pandemic.

Delgado said acute stress cannot be maintained for a long period of time, so once the initial panic subsided, reactions transitioned into depression, anxiety, stress and worsening psychiatric symptoms.

“So you saw the perfect storm in mental health,”he said.

New challenges emerge

Delgado said he initially anticipated patients diagnosed with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia having a more difficult time during the pandemic. But he was surprised to see more people suffering from severe depression, bi-polar disorders and substance abuse.

Kristen Daugherty, chief executive officer of Emergence Health Network, said the organization also began to provide services to people they hadn’t previously treated.

Kristen Daugherty

Emergence is the largest mental health provider in El Paso County, with 19 service locations. The agency provides services and treatment for severe or persistent mental illness, intellectual/development disabilities, and substance abuse issues.

Daugherty said Emergence officials didn’t initially know how people would respond to the pandemic and were concerned the clients they currently serve would go into crisis. She said they focused on reassuring those clients that their services would continue either in person or through video or phone calls.

Daugherty said aside from those in an acute mental health crisis, people began calling for help with issues such as fear and hopelessness.

“It wasn’t the normal person in an acute psychiatric crisis,” Daugherty said.

Daugherty said the organization had to adapt quickly to the new environment and was well-positioned to handle the changes brought on by COVID-19.

EHN had expanded its information technology infrastructure prior to the pandemic, which helped the transition for staff to work from home. She said the organization, which has offered some in-person services since the beginning of the pandemic, also had a three-month supply of personal protective equipment in place at all times so employees wouldn’t have to worry about how they would protect themselves.

“We were able to pivot this ship really quickly,” Daugherty said.

Isidro Torres, executive director of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, or NAMI El Paso, said one of the initial concerns was the isolation that would result from the stay-at-home orders and individuals being in quarantine.

Isidro Torres

NAMI El Paso offers resources such as support groups and classes for adult family members, caregivers and friends of adults living with a mental health condition.

Torres said individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, or live with mental health conditions and rely on support systems with their families and friends, did not have the same physical connection pre-COVID.

“That was definitely something that we were just thinking about and talking about, as we began to enter the early months and early weeks, even of the pandemic,” Torres said.

He said they have also shifted operations to virtual settings such as video groups, classes and sessions.

“Just because we can’t be together, that doesn’t mean that connection is lost,” Torres said. “(We) use the technology to maintain connections and to restructure our support system and our recovery system to meet the challenges faced by the pandemic.”

Pandemic mental health impact on children

Dr. Sarah Martin, child and adolescent division chief at Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, said one of the biggest concerns she had about the pandemic was the impact to children during the stay-at-home orders and not being able to attend classes in person.

Dr. Sarah Martin

Martin said she was particularly concerned with families that had a history of violence.

“(Violence) would be more common, but then nobody would know about it because the kids weren’t going to school,” Martin said. “That’s where the vast majority of child abuse is detected.”

She said it is still too early to tell if there was an actual increase in child abuse cases.

Martin said while some children and teens had difficulty adjusting to the isolation brought on by stay-at-home orders and not being able to go to school, others adapted easily. She said children who tend to have severe anxiety no longer had to be in school situations that would exacerbate the condition.

As the pandemic moves into its second year, Martin said she recommends people not delay seeking help for mental health treatment.

“The longer it goes on, the harder it is to treat,” she said.

Delgado said he anticipates things will get better for the community.

“I expect things to get better every month because on one hand you have a lot of people getting vaccinated, and on the other hand we have all learned to live with the loss of normalcy,” Delgado said. “We’ve already learned how to deal with the changes.”

Daugherty said aside from being healthy physically, people need to remember that mental health is also important.

“We want to all be healthy physically, and we want to be healthy mentally and emotionally and spiritually,” Daugherty said.

Reach out for help

Emergence Health Network COVID-19 Mental Health Support Hotline (915) 779-1800 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-8255

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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