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Concerns about mental health, domestic violence prompt outreach

Officials brace for upticks in crisis calls, police reports

April 17, 2020 by Richard Moore

Many mental health hotlines around the country are seeing a sharp increase in calls during the COVID-19 pandemic, and officials are bracing for an even larger increase, but other hotlines are reporting pretty much the same number of calls, suggesting — at least so far — many people are coping with the restrictions on movements and financial pressures they are facing.

Generally speaking, calls tend to be spiking more in urban areas than in rural areas, a survey of reports indicate.

Still, there’s no doubt the pandemic has created widespread anxiety.

Nationally, the parent organization of the Mental Health America of Wisconsin (MHA) reports an increase in calls to its hotlines because of the anxiety associated with the virus. According to the MHA’s screening data, there was a 19% increase in screening for clinical anxiety in the first weeks of February, and a 12% increase in the first two weeks of March.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, the federal Disaster Distress Helpline hasn’t had as many calls since Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and even those numbers pale now next to calls coming in related to COVID-19. The helpline answered about 7,000 calls and received 19,000 text messages in March, a more than eight-fold increase from February, the center reports.

Over at the national Crisis Text Line, which offers 24/7 support for those in crisis, the number of texts in one week in March were about double the normal number of 3,000 it receives each week, the group reported to the Boston Globe. 

In his blog on the group’s website, Bob Filbin, chief data scientist and cofounder on the group, said that “a whopping 80% of people mentioning ‘virus’ discuss feeling anxious.”

Overall, he wrote, 34% of texters mentioned feeling anxiety.

But location matters. While calls are skyrocketing in many areas, other locations were fielding normal amounts of calls. For example, at the end of March, call volume remained largely normal for Crisis Support Services of Alameda County, California, and the San Francisco Suicide Prevention line, the San Francisco Examiner reported. 

Locally, in Oneida County, Tamara Feest, the executive director of the county’s Human Service Center, said on April 3 that calls to its mental health hotlines have remained about average. 

For example, the crisis line took 170 calls in January, with 56 requiring a mobile crisis mental health professional to mobile out to conduct a mental health assessment. In February, there were 161 calls to the crisis line, with 43 requiring a mobile crisis response, and in March there were 159 calls, with 53 requiring a mobile crisis response. 

All those numbers were about average, Feest said: “We have not seen an increase in the number of calls we receive for individuals experiencing mental health crisis.”

But, Feest said, she expected that to change the longer the pandemic and the consequent stay-at-home mandates persist.

“However, the longer people feel distress due to isolation, fear of the unknown, not having normal routines, and financial burdens because of being out of work, we anticipate the call volume to increase,” she said. “People should continue to reach out to family, friends or others who they rely on for support. The more we as a community help each other the less likely it will be for individuals to experience a crisis.”

For people who have mental illness and/or substance use disorders, Feest said they should continue their individualized care plans, medications and treatment, and, if they are experiencing changes in their symptoms or behaviors, they should contact their care provider to discuss those changes and the appropriate course of action.

Domestic abuse

There are also concerns about increased domestic abuse and child abuse in a time of isolation and stress. In a query last week of 22 law enforcement agencies across the country by NBC News, 18 departments said they had seen a rise in reports in March. 

Again, though, many of those were more urban areas, such as Houston, Charlotte, and Phoenix.

Here in Oneida County, sheriff Grady Hartman said this week his department had three domestic violence calls so far in the past week or so. 

That was running higher than average, but not abnormally so. For instance, in March 2017, the latest year for which data is available online, there were six domestic abuse incidents in Oneida County, or about 1.5 per week. Those lower numbers also occurred in 2013 and 2015.

However, the three per week average also occurred multiple times, with 12 incidents in March of 2016, and 13 in March 2014.

Like Feest, though, Hartman said he expects an increase.

“I expect that we may have an uptick in domestic abuse and unruly kid calls for service the longer this drags on,” he said. “I think the stress and worry people are under may lead to more instances, although I’m hopeful it does not.”

One thing that heartens the sheriff is the way people have been conducting themselves in general.

“So far, I’ve seen a lot of courtesy and cooperation within the community, which is not surprising,” he said. “We remain ready to assist anyone who has a need.”

Others worry about an increase in child abuse, though in many places the number of abuse reports are falling off. That doesn’t mean there’s less child abuse, though, only that schools are closed and the professionals who most often notice and report abuse aren’t seeing it. 


Mental health professionals are offering multiple strategies for coping during the pandemic.

Heidi Pritzl, a licensed clinical social worker with Ascension Koller Behavioral Health, offered four such strategies for coping with stress this week.

One way, Pritzl says, is to set a limit on media consumption, including social media, local, or national news. Then, too, she advised, stay active. 

“Make sure to get enough sleep and rest,” she wrote in a column this week. “Stay hydrated and avoid excessive amounts of caffeine or alcohol. Eat healthy foods when possible.”

Pritzl also recommends connecting with loved ones and others who may be experiencing stress about the outbreak, and to get accurate health information from reputable sources.

Feest, of the Human Service Center, said multiple resources are available for people to reach out. 

“The following link, https://emergency.cdc.gov/coping/selfcare.asp, provides some basics on taking care of yourself in disasters, which apply to this situation as well,” she said. “We are generally talking with clients about these very things, trying to normalize what they are feeling, and this applies across the population, not just with individuals who have mental illness.”

Feest is also encouraging people to gain information from reliable, authoritative resources such as the Centers for Disease Control, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html, or the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/index.htm.   

“For people who have reached out to us, we’ve recommended these websites,” she said. “It’s important to have factual information and remember that just because it’s on the internet or social media doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Even navigating those websites can be difficult because they are loaded with a variety of information, Feest said. She also recommended https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html and a DHS site, https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/resilient.htm, as sites that speak specifically about coping and managing stress.  

Feest provided other resources including:

• The Crisis Line for residents of Forest, Oneida and Vilas Counties provides confidential over-the-phone crisis intervention by professionals who will give a listening ear for people in the community that are experiencing emotional distress – 1-888-299-1188.

• Hope Text Line — https://centerforsuicideawareness.org/hopeline/ — offered by the Center for Suicide Awareness, is a text-in (versus voice call-in) free emotional support service providing hope, help, and support when it’s needed most. HOPELINE serves anyone in any type of situation providing them access to free, 24/7 emotional support and information they need via the medium they already use and trust. Text HOPELINE to 741741.

• Solstice Line — https://soarcms.org/programs/solstice-house — is a resource for individuals in need of extra support related to mental health and/or substance use concerns. Potential guests are individuals who want to strengthen their recovery and pro-actively address any challenges they may be experiencing. 

Solstice House offers human connection in a home-like environment to help support opportunity for growth and change. Solstice House is open and free to all adult residents in Wisconsin who want peer support to aid in their recovery. All staff identify as having lived experiences of mental health and/or substance use concerns, and have been successful. 

The Solstice House warmline at 608-244-5077 is intended to support individuals who are entering a crisis and in need of emotional support by having them speak with individuals who identify as having their own lived experience via phone. 

Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming “Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story” and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.

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