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Tracking Utah’s mental health care needs during COVID-19… trends not clear yet

Mental health advocates are warning of the possible impact that limited social interaction and months of isolation can have on child development. (PHOTO: KSL File)

SALT LAKE COUNTY – What kind of ripple effect is COVID-19 having on the mental health care needs of people in Utah?  Analysts say they’re trying to keep a close watch over the latest mental health trends in the state, but it can be trickier than some people would expect. 

When it comes to how well Utahns are handling the stress of coronavirus, there are certain things researchers are looking for.  Participants during Tuesday’s Intermountain Healthcare webinar say they’re keeping an eye on confirmed overdoses, overdose attempts, and suicide ideation, for example.  Doctor Irwin Redler with the National Center for Disaster Preparedness says it’s dangerous to assume mental health problems will be the same between one disaster and another.

“One of the things that we’re vulnerable to is assuming that we have a good program, it’s a big program, it’s helping people.  But, what percentage of the people is it actually helping?” he asks.

If people are going to recover from the issues connected to the virus, Redler says the process will be slow.  He says people with pre-existing mental health conditions, marginalized groups, and children will be hit especially hard.

He says, “People who are resilient on day one become increasingly less resilient over time.”

However, the data isn’t very clear, yet, on how the virus is affecting mental health in this state.  Doctor Brooks Keeshin with the University of Utah and Primary Children’s Hospital says they’ve seen spikes in certain mental health problems, but those numbers quickly go back down to normal.  He says it’s possible that temporary jumps in suicide attempts and visits to the ER are completely random, with no connection to the virus.  He says it’s still important these numbers be watched closely, so they can determine long term trends about mental health in the state.

“Then, we want to be able to react in real-time to that and not wait until next year and look back and say, ‘Oh, there were all these spikes but nobody realized at the time, and nobody did anything about it,’” Keeshin says.

What can people do if they suspect someone they love is going through a problem?  Researchers say this is where keeping in contact with family, friends, and neighbors is so important.  Doctor Michael Staley with the Utah Medical Examiner’s Office says a lot of us may be going through depression or suicidal thoughts, but not all of us will need professional help.

Staley says, “A lot of people just need a confidant, or just somebody to check in on them and say, ‘How is it going?’”

Some therapists say it’s crucial that parents have an open discussion with their kids about how they’re handling COVID-19 restrictions, but it’s also important they don’t just assume their children are suffering.  They say parents might accidentally lose the opportunity to find out what’s really going on with their kids.

 

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