Update, March 23, 2020: The Spartanburg Area Mental Health Center is now condusting routine consultations onlythrough phone and video. Director Roger Williams says serious cases, new patients, and patients exhibiting suicidal tendencies are still being seen in-person, after screening outside the building.
Betsy O’Brien, executive director of the National Alliance On Mental Illness Piedmont Tri-County (NAMI) has an autistic son she and her husband almost couldn’t get in to see. He lives in a four-bedroom group home that, due to precautions surrounding coronavirus, is being treated like a nursing home – which means restricted access for anyone not already inside.
“We see him every weekend,” O’Brien said in a phone interview Wednesday. “On Monday they told us they wouldn’t be doing support workshops. They said we wouldn’t be seeing him either.”
Seeing his parents weekly was a lifeline for her son, O’Brien said. So were the weekly trips to restaurants and movies that the group home treated residents to. She said that hearing he wouldn’t be going out for a while “just devastade” her son.
The general anxiety of a global quarantine is weighing on everyone, but for people with mental health conditions – particularly those involving anxiety issues, like autism is known to be – the uncertainty of how long and how involved social distancing will be is especially problematic.
Compounding the issue for O’Brien’s son is that he is worried bout his parents getting sick from the coronavirus.
“He’s worried that we’re going to die,” she says. “I’m 65 and dad is 67. He’s asking, ‘Does anybody know where I am if something happens to you?’”
The O’Briens, it turns out, can see their son, provided they follow “flu protocols,” such as having their temperature taken at the door first, she said.
The family is relieved, but O’Brien said that trying to communicate the reasons why we’re all staying away from each other for a while can be especially difficult to someone with a cognitive issue.
Facilities are Open
For those in the mental health profession, it is a busy time. O’Brien admits, “We’re all a little more anxious.” But larger issues loom for people with more serious mental conditions.
The good news is, mental health services are continuing, altered, but uninterrupted, said Roger Williams, executive director of the Spartanburg Area Mental Health Center (SAMHC). In a phone interview Tuesday, Williams said that his staff has had to make a few adjustments in how they approach care for patients, but that care is available to all who need it.
“We’re trying to be as normal as possible,” he said. “People are obviously anxious.”
And he means patients as well as staff, all trying to cope with the haunting uncertainty of how much more isolated we may all need to be and for how long.
That slow-burn anxiety, however, is overshadowed by the fear patients may have of simply contracting coronavirus. Many patients at SAMHC, Williams said, are older and many others have underlying physical health problems in addition to mental health conditions that make them less able to handle stress and uncertainty. That’s driving some to avoid getting care, for fear of coming into contact with the illness.
To make sure patients know they can continue (or begin) getting care, SAMHC has been reminding patients of the center’s telehealth option. The center has a well-established telehealth system already, but Williams said it has taken on greater importance amid the pandemic.
“We’re asking that if you’re symptomatic, call us,” Williams said.
That request is about more than only the therapy sessions being conducted over the phone or online. Some patients need medication, Williams said. Patients who are worried about being exposed to the virus might be reluctant to come in for a refill.
Williams said a phone consultation is one option, but another is waiting outside.
“If you’re worried,” he said., “wait in your car. We’ll come to you if you’re not comfortable in our waiting room.”
Likewise, O’Brien said NAMI Piedmont Tri-County has moved its support groups online. The organization has 14 groups that have found a way to gather through phone and video meetings. They are well-attended, and “will be a way to stay connected,” she said.
Williams said that regardless of whether counties shut down their operations otherwise, South Carolina’s mental health centers will stay open.
What Stress May Come
A significant portion of SAMHC’s business is student-focused within Spartanburg County’s schools. With schools on hiatus or offering telecourses, kids are home – and with many businesses shut down or directing employees to work from home, so are their parents.
Williams said the center is keeping in regular contact with the kids in its program, especially the ones most at risk for being in a bad situation. It’s an ugly reality he and his staff are trying to stay ahead of – the kids SAMHC treats, he said, are usually in treatment because of family conflict. Being cooped up together, and for an unknown number of weeks, he knows, is not likely to make for a better relationship.
Similarly, Williams is bracing for higher rates of at-home problems overall.
“Sadly, we anticipate higher rates of domestic abuse,” he said. “For families having a tough time before [coronavirus], it could get worse.”
He said SAMHC is trying to stay in touch with as many patients as possible to help stem the long-term effects of cabin fever.
“We’re trying to maintain that contact,” he said.
Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan