Colorado health experts detail COVID-19 impact on mental health, young people

March 2020 had highest-call volume ever to crisis hotline
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Posted at 1:42 PM, May 14, 2020

Mental health has become a major focus for Colorado health experts as the novel coronavirus continues to impact everyday life.

According to data from Colorado Crisis Services, its crisis hotline saw a 57% increase in calls in March 2020 compared to March 2019. March 2020 saw the highest volume of calls to the crisis hotline for a singular month, said Robert Werthwein, director of the Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health.

In total, 21,338 calls were made to the hotline this past March and 13,572 calls were made in March 2019.

Both February and April saw a 40% increase compared to those months in 2019, and that trend is continuing into May, Werthwein said. The hotline's number is 1-844-493-8255. Users can also text "TALK" to 38255.

Colorado Crisis Services graph

He said the calls have been two to three minutes longer, averaging 11 to 13 minutes total, and many are related to feelings connected to COVID-19.

Werthwein said there are many conversations about how the state can further assist Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners, which runs the hotline, though it’s funded by the state. No matter what adjustments are made to the state’s budget, Werthwein said they are ensuring they can continue to meet the needs of Coloradans.

The Office of Behavioral Health is running a couple advertisements through multiple platforms to connect people in crisis to resources. For example, the ads targeting young people are running on TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, Werthwein said. Those ads specifically speak to the pressure of appearing to feel OK when the young person is actually experiencing stress, isolation, depression and anxiety.

He said they are trying to develop as many avenues as possible to ensure youth can connect with services, a trusting adult and each other. He stressed the importance of continuing conversations with a loved one about their mental health if you’re concerned about them, and making sure they know your door is open to a safe, nonjudgmental conversation.

“It’s really important that we continue to encourage to have that conversation with young people even if we feel like they’re resisting a little bit,” he said. “It’s important for them to know that you are there.”

Because everybody is going through adjustments and uncertainty right now, he said it’s important to have patience as well.

Lena Heilmann, the suicide prevention strategies manager in the state Department of Public Health and Environment’s Office of Suicide Prevention, said suicide is a complex issue and not the result of a singular cause.

She said in Colorado, the vast majority of people who feel suicidal won’t actually attempt suicide or die by suicide.

“Embedded in our community are so many stories are hope, resilience and recovery,” she said. “And part of what we want to do in (the Office of) Suicide Prevention is really acknowledge the strengths we have and the strengths that already exist.”

Connecting to other people is one of the key protective factors in suicide prevention, she explained. That’s something that the Office of Suicide Prevention is grappling with in the time of COVID-19.

“As people are isolating or quarantining, how do people continue to feel connected?” she said. “Feeling connected to trusted adults, peers, school and community are crucial protective factors for youth.”

There are many avenues to continue to bond with peers and trusted adults, she said. These new ways of connecting affect people differently — some may feel closer to others, some may feel more isolated.

She said it’s important to support young people through this time and ask open-ended questions, like “What do you do to feel less stressed?” or “What do you do to feel less lonely or sad?” That can open a conversation to let the young person explain what they’re experiencing and have those feelings validated. Together, they can work to connect the person to appropriate care, Heilmann said.

Children are experiencing more stress as well during this time, said Dr. Jason Williams, director of operations of the Pediatric Mental Health Institute at Children's Hospital Colorado. He’s also a professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

He said children feel isolated from their normal peer connections since they are out of school.

“Unlike the rest of our hospital, where many of our beds are waiting to support the COVID surges, our psychiatric in-patient units have been full,” he said. “While this is usually a busy time of the year for us, it’s certainly very different.”

The unit, and hospital in general, has relied heavily on telehealth. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the hospital as a whole had about 100 telehealth appointments per week. Now, Williams said they’re up to roughly 6,000.

Every developmental age will have a different response to how COVID-19 has impacted their everyday life. For young children, the concerns are similar to adults — anxiety and depression are possible — but they would manifest differently. Williams said he recommends looking for warning signs, like withdrawal, differing sleep patterns and appetite changes. If those behaviors are observed, a trusted adult should begin a conversation with the child in a developmentally appropriate way.

The state is also working to ensure healthcare workers have the resources they need.

“The state of Colorado has received $200,000 from the federal government for front line worker mental health services," Werthwein said. "We just received that grant as part of the $2 million COVID emergency response for behavioral health in the state of Colorado and $200,000 of that is dedicated to putting front line worker supports in place.”

The state is working with professionals across many front-line industries — like health care, crisis response, law enforcement, paramedics and more — to determine how to best get these services to them.