Mental health hotline is helping Texans navigate the pandemic

By Elvia Limón, Texas Tribune

Within the first month of its launch, the state’s new mental health support line received nearly 2,000 calls from Texans in 100 counties who were struggling with fears of getting sick, feelings of isolation from social distancing and anxiety over a crashing economy caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

One call came from an 87-year-old woman living at an assisted living facility who said she felt frustrated about not being able to be near her loved ones. By the end of the call she thanked the person on the line for making suggestions on how to use technology to reach out to her family and for chatting with her for a few minutes.

Another came from a northeast Texas mom who was irked that her 10-year-old son wasn’t doing his school work. After talking to both of them, the call taker — a mental health professional who works for Houston’s Harris Center for Mental Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities — learned that the boy wasn’t doing his work because he missed his teacher and the TV was causing a distraction. The call taker recommended that the mom reach out to her son’s teacher and schedule a one-on-one meeting.

“We told her maybe you should turn off the TV when he’s doing school work, and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even think of that,’” said Jennifer Battle, director of access at the Harris Center. “Under normal circumstances, of course she would’ve thought of that. But something that seems obvious is now just one more thing that you have to be aware of.”

Battle said the mental health support line was first pitched as a way to serve healthcare providers working at drive-thru coronavirus testing locations in Harris County, but then was expanded to serve all of the county’s residents when it launched on March 17.

The Harris Center, a health authority in the Houston area, and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission — which had seen a 500% jump in traffic to its own web pages on mental health and substance abuse resources — joined the effort soon after to expand the service to callers statewide on March 31.

“We can listen to them and be there in the moment, and connect them to resources if they need them,” Battle said. “We’ve even had people call in because they’re mad because they feel their neighbors aren’t following the rules of social distancing, and they just needed to tell somebody that they’re frustrated.”

Elliott Sprehe, a spokesman for the state Health and Human Services Commission, said Texans who call the hotline talk to one of 39 mental health professionals — all Harris Center employees — who can provide over-the-phone support, information or referrals to other services they may need. He said 58% of callers are fully served by the COVID-19 line and don’t require a referral.

Most of the calls have come from Texans seeking emotional support. The call takers also are trained to share coping mechanisms to help people with anxiety or panic attacks.

“One of the well-trained folks will invite the person to talk about whatever is going on,” Battle said. “Often people are feeling lonely.”

Sprehe said the call takers also ask whether callers are experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis and can immediately connect those who say yes to a local mental health authority or a local mental health hotline that can offer help regardless of whether the caller has insurance.

Battle said the Harris Center has created several free virtual support groups, similar to a Zoom video conference, for health care workers who have called the state’s support line seeking emotional and mental health assistance.

Greg Hansch, the executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Texas, said the pandemic has caused new mental health disorders in people or exacerbated existing illnesses. While social distancing has played a key role in slowing down the spread of the virus, he said it has also led to some Texans feeling isolated.

Many Texans are also dealing with the anxiety that comes from potentially exposing themselves to the coronavirus each time they are in a public space. Hansch said his organization also has seen an increase in people asking for help — including a 500% increase in calls in the past month.

And mental health groups expect the need to get much bigger. The economic fallout from the pandemic — about 1.8 million Texans applied for unemployment insurance in the last seven weeks — will directly and indirectly affect the rates of mental health and substance abuse disorders for months or years to come, according to experts.

A recent study by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute projects that for every 5 percentage point increase in the state’s unemployment rate, an additional 725 Texans could die each year by suicide and drug overdose. The study recommends that policy makers and health care systems prepare for an increase in people seeking help.

Texas mental health advocates want state leaders to expand available resources, including expanding support at schools for students, teachers and staff; provide uninsured Texans with access to mental health services; and maintain the statewide support line.

Some of these requests may already be in the works. On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the state had received $5.8 million in federal funds to provide counseling services to Texans affected by the outbreak.

Hansch said his organization hopes the state Legislature addresses mental health needs caused by the pandemic when it returns to session next year.

“It’s clear that there’s a demand for mental health,” Hansch said. “We’re headed to a very hard economic climate where the state leadership will be challenged.”

How to get help

Texas COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line: 833-986-1919

NAMI Texas: (512) 693-2000

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Suicide Prevention Line: 1 (800) SUICIDE (784-2433)

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