Mental health frontlines; Health workers see rise in patient anxiety

For nearly five months, Rio Grande Valley residents have been working hard to maintain jobs, families, and health while COVID-19 infections and the necessary changes to public life that come along with the virus amplify stress and anxiety.

This month, cases have skyrocketed, with Cameron County Public Health reporting on Thursday that an additional 335 residents had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. County officials have warned repeatedly that local hospitals are at capacity.

A report of suicides rising in Brownsville sent worry through the community on Monday. Asked to confirm whether suicides have increased in frequency since March, Brownsville Police Department public information officer Jose A. Laredo found that rates have actually remained steady compared to previous years.

“From March 1 to July 15, 2018, there were two suicides. In 2019 for that same time period, there were four. And then this year, March 1 to July 15, there was a total of four. I’m familiar with the challenges — how we have to adapt to COVID, wearing masks,” said Laredo.

“Before, we would be shaking hands, hugging our relatives, and having that closeness. People may assume that because of that change, things could be getting worse. But those are the numbers we have.”

Upon further research, Laredo reported that attempted suicides — in which the person survived — have actually halved from March 1 to July 15, 2020 in comparison to previous years. There were 76 attempted in 2020 as opposed to 123 attempted between March and July of 2019, and 125 attempted in 2018 in the same time frame.

Brownsville’s mental healthcare professionals have seen an increase in both patients and providers displaying symptoms of anxiety and depression.

According to Dr. Daniel Gutierrez, chief medical officer at Tropical Texas Behavioral Health and a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, physicians have been seeing entire families in quarantine during tele health visits.

Now that hospitals are at capacity, staff in South Texas is facing difficulty obtaining the medical clearance needed before a psychiatric patient in a crisis is admitted to a hospital. “We’re trying to work with the emergency rooms, the hospitals,” said the doctor.

“That’s going to become even harder, because unfortunately, we might be hit harder in the next few weeks. How do we deal with our patients that are having acute psychiatric conditions that need hospitalization for safety reasons?”

As the situation with the virus worsens, it continues to place a major strain on healthcare workers, including nurses, doctors, and hospital staff. Mental healthcare workers suspect they’ll soon be on the front lines of a crisis, as well.

“We’re feeling like we’re in the back row waiting as this progresses. There’s going to be a fall out with the population about losses, about grief, about all the anxiety that has produced,” Gutierrez explained.

The physician recommended that anyone suffering from symptoms like depression and anxiety first approach their primary care physician.

Those without health insurance can contact Tropical Texas’s hotline if they feel they’re in a crisis, at (877) 289-7199. For questions about TTBH’s services, call (800) 813-1233. Others should reach out to online support groups, counseling, family, and friends.

Useful resources include the Shrink Box podcast, available at www.facebook.com/shrinkboxpodcast, the CDC’s information on coronavirus at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus, and the Texas Department of Health and Human Services’ Mental Health Support line, available at (833)986-1919.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 and is reachable at (800) 273-8255. Support for deaf individuals and those with hearing loss is available at (800)799-4899, and those who would rather message the hotline can do so at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.

Gutierrez said, “Theses stressful times. We should be aware that the feelings all of us have — waking up in the middle of the night and wondering why, stress, or worry — those are normal concerns that we’re all having. That doesn’t mean you have a mental health problem.”

“But, if someone starts having significant dysfunction in their lives — feeling that they can’t carry on their duties, their work, their sleep, their eating, their interactions with family — they should look out for specialized help.”

Dr. Alex Kudisch, a medical director and psychiatrist at the Geriatric Behavioral Unit at Valley Baptist Medical Center – Harlingen, cited a recent study out of China in which the general public was surveyed online. “56 percent of the general population reported online that they were struggling with mental health,” he said. “The general population is definitely struggling, and rightfully so.”

Kudisch recommended that anyone feeling overwhelmed step back, try to breathe, and focus on the moment. “It’s hard, because we’re being hit on all sides. The news plays the numbers over and over,” he said.

“I recommend doing things that involve sticking to your healthy routines. You want to exercise on a regular basis. That’s instrumental in decreasing anxiety and stress. Practice mindfulness — taking a walk, going outside, and not being around too many people when you do that. Wear a mask.”

The doctor said that exposure to sunlight can increase Vitamin D in the body, which is suspected to be helpful in the prevention of disease. Another step to take is getting enough sleep. “We want to make sure that’s a healthy sleep — we don’t want to promote sleep by using alcohol, for example. We want to stay away from those kinds of drug use.”

For those struggling with addiction or relapses, Kudisch pointed out that groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and similar support groups are now available online, and crisis hotlines are a great resource for those not already established with a physician.

“ It will be a little bit of a roller coaster ride, but we need to think positively and take care of ourselves. Reach out to others who are struggling and communicate with others,” said Kudisch.

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com