The ongoing effects of the pandemic are keeping local therapists on their toes as they help clients cope with last year’s losses and get back to normal once COVID-19 restrictions wear off.
“Many of the therapists in Maui I spoke to reported an increase in psychiatric symptoms in people with and without a history of mental illness during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and this has both financial and emotional well-being , “ said Dr. David Wittenberg of Behavioral Health Services at Maui LLC. “I saw an increase in fear of the future, poverty, as several family members worked for resorts and certain people left the island.”
Maui Behavioral Health Resources comprises three facilities – Aloha House, Malama Family Recovery Center, and Maui Youth and Family Services.
Wittenberg, who co-manages the crisis services, case management services, Maui counseling group, and intensive home therapy services for adolescents, said he has many psychiatrists and psychologists, as well as other licensed and unlicensed providers in the field of the problem.
They spearheaded an overall surge in anxiety, depression, substance abuse, insomnia, weight gain, and other medical conditions over the past year, some of which could continue as the pandemic wears off.
Maui Counseling Group’s therapists served 1,067 clients in April, up about 10 calls a month since February. The crisis team makes approximately 100 mobile outreach calls per month on the state helpline, and the case management staff has over 400 clients with severe mental illness who are offered services.
Crisis calls from adults increased each month during the pandemic, with calls in February and March being the highest in those months in the four years. Calls about youth crises fell, in part because many of the calls Aloha House would handle were from the State Department of Education. Since the DOE schools were closed, the calls were dropped.
However, the calls are increasing again and “We fear that these numbers could increase a little” Wittenberg said last month.
“The nature and extent of this unprecedented pandemic has affected so many people in Maui County,” he said. he added. “There are still a lot of families that have been in some kind of prolonged isolation.”
Customers who have had a therapist before the pandemic are “Generally better” because they could use the already existing support, “Which underlines the importance of starting and maintaining therapy for people at risk” Wittenberg said.
Fortunately for some, the mental health effects of the pandemic have been mitigated by government support programs such as stimulus checks, eviction moratoriums and mortgage deferrals.
“If and when these programs are lifted, we anticipate that the mental health landscape could change again.” he said.
Many families are still recovering from last year’s struggles as parents return to work and students prepare for daily face-to-face lessons.
The pandemic took its toll on teenagers who endured online classes and missed out on social and extra-curricular activities.
Students who previously got A fell back to Ds during distance learning, which “Became a blow to their self-esteem and the process of losing faith in their abilities”, Wittenberg said.
Heather Long of Maui Youth and Family Services, who is also a counselor for Baldwin High School and other children in the Wailuku and Hawaiian Homes area, noticed a decline in the mental wellbeing of some of her clients.
“Children complained that they hated virtual learning and wanted to go back to school.” Long said last month. “Some of my clients put on a lot of weight because they sat online for over six hours a day.”
Long has reached out to Baldwin students and homeless youth in Wailuku for the past 15 months, offering personal support services or telemedicine counseling to 14-18 year olds, as well as clients who graduate in 2020.
“I felt that the children felt separated from their support community” She said.
Long believes the community will have a lasting impact on the youth.
“I think when teenagers come back to learning in person they have to get up every day and wear different clothes than their pajamas.” She said. “Teens need to get back on a schedule they haven’t had in the past 16 months.”
According to Barry Taghavi, a psychiatrist with the Maui Counseling Group, these age groups are more “emotionally vulnerable to the effects of limited social interactions.”
While many welcome a return to the classroom or to work, returning can also cause a degree of discomfort that can prolong mental illness or substance use disorders.
Despite the increase in social interactions, the move to work or school can sometimes change the mood due to the mood “The stress of uncertainty and having to make new decisions that you are no longer used to or that you did not have to make before” Wittenberg said.
There were also many families who had to balance multiple responsibilities during the pandemic, such as: Such as getting back to work or looking for a job, finding childcare, raising young children in virtual learning, maintaining relationships, etc. This balancing act may persist or worsen once the regular timetables resume .
“Some highly functional people who have welcomed the return to work or more social interaction have been overstimulated by changes that are too rapid.” Wittenberg said. “Sometimes they are scared in public situations and feel very uncomfortable and do not know how to proceed in certain cases.”
Psychiatrists and therapists have also identified a gap in community attitudes about COVID-19 that can inspire fear and suspicion.
“Sometimes people don’t know how to approach each other after the pandemic” Wittenberg said. “Some people never bothered about it and others were very attuned to it. Some students have been told to stay away from others, and this message contrasts with asking others for help on what was pre-pandemic. “
The pandemic also exacerbated some long-standing problems, such as substance abuse or addiction. Adults dealing with addiction often feel that they are being stigmatized for treatment, or that they can do it “Take care of it yourself”, said Jud Cunningham, chief executive officer of Maui Behavioral Health Resources.
“The prevailing and scientifically based theory is that addiction is a chronic, relapse-prone disease for many people.” said Cunningham. “There is no shame in seeking professional help to seek or maintain recovery from an addiction. It is said that addiction is ‘a pandemic within the pandemic’ that resorting to substance abuse is an inadequate means of dealing with the negative effects of the COVID pandemic. “
Cunningham said it is very likely that there will be one after the pandemic subsides “Even greater need” for substance abuse and mental treatment.
“For those in need of treatment and in recovery, keep in touch with social networks, support groups, and friends who promote healthy alternatives to managing stress.” he added. “The search for professional advice / intervention is a strength, not a weakness.”
Connecting with others, being outside, staying active, setting small goals, limiting screen time, and eating nutritious meals are just a few of the ways you can boost your mood and overall wellbeing.
“Remember that many of us are anxious and sometimes awkward in new social situations, and unpacking some of these feelings and what they serve is a great way to deal with the new normal.” Wittenberg said.
While teens and keiki need their peers for development, those who are afraid of being back in crowds should take things slowly as life returns to the new normal.
“Try to take a deep breath in new social situations, perhaps ask open-ended questions and listen” Wittenberg said. “It’s okay if you’re not willing to spend time – don’t try to take on too much at once. People only have a certain amount of social energy and try to be aware of it so that you don’t burn out and get sick. “
Long suggested that parents help their teenagers and Keiki get back into a familiar routine. Families could also involve children in activities they enjoyed before the pandemic and “Expose you to new healthy activities.”
“I think we will see an increase in anxiety due to the demands of attending personal school. Children have developed some bad habits and it will take time for them to change. “ She said. “I also think that children will really need safe adults in their lives so that they can feel connected to their community again.”
Educators can have a challenging time in the 2021-22 school year, but when “We practice true aloha and malama, our keiki, we will see healing in our schools.” She said.
Therapists emphasized the importance of soliciting family and friends for support, doing more wellness check-ins, and searching for resources available across Maui County for those struggling with mental health and / or drug use .
“We need to do more to educate the public that isolation is unhealthy and that being outdoors in parks and beaches is beneficial to both physical and mental health.” Wittenberg said.
Many people found a silver lining during the pandemic – the opportunity to reassess their purpose in life and place more emphasis on family, friends, hobbies and health.
“There were also some families who were so busy before the pandemic that they realized they weren’t spending enough time together and would not have done that if the pandemic hadn’t occurred.” Wittenberg said. “The pandemic added a healthy perspective to what is really important in life.”
For crisis relief or access to mental health resources, call Hawaii CARES for free 24/7 support at (800) 753-6879 or contact the Crisis Text Line by sending ALOHA at 741741.
To access the 24-hour emergency helpline, call Maui Youth and Family Services at 579-8406 or email Services@MYFS.org.
More information and resources about Aloha House can be found at mbhr.org/about-aloha-house/.
* Dakota Grossman can be reached at email@example.com.