Pressure of the pandemic: Mental health providers overbooked

Some psychiatrists are booked five months out, Roper Psychiatrist Dr. Sarah Coker said.
Updated: Apr. 2, 2021 at 4:35 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - In many ways the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic can be represented by graphics and numbers.

The CDC currently reports 30.3 million novel coronavirus cases, 550,169 deaths and 158 million vaccines given.

But the toll of the virus on our mental health is much harder to see.

Human nature is to be social, Roper Psychiatrist Dr. Sarah Coker said, so for many people the very solutions to slowing the spread of coronavirus weighs heavily on their mental health. It can be hard to cope with isolation from family, friends and coworkers.

When it comes to why patients are seeking mental health treatment right now, Coker said, “The main thing I would say is anxiety, but there’s definitely been an increase in depression and anxiety.”

Coker is the Co-Medical Director of Psychiatry for Roper St. Francis.

“The pandemic has caused so many burdens now between finances, loss of loved ones, relocating, moving, for some - eviction,” Coker said. “There’s a lot of things that have happened this year that aren’t going away yet.”

She says it’s also very sad to see patients dealing with grief and guilt.

“I’ve had several patients who have gotten [COVID] and given it to someone they know who then died,” Coker said. “They have horrible guilt, horrible depression and anxiety.”

One positive is that she’s able to continue treating many patients virtually.

“People now can get care who haven’t been getting care for years because it’s not requiring them to take an entire day off of work, to go sit in traffic, wait on an appointment time, so forth. So it’s been actually very helpful,” she said.

But that’s only if you can get an appointment. Nationwide, pressure on mental health providers is mounting.

Coker knows of some in the Lowcountry who are booked- and even over-booked - for the next five months.

“I’ve talked to other psychiatrists in the community. They’re working on days off. They opening Saturday clinics just because there are so many people needing treatment for depression or anxiety,” she said. “There’s no physical way to meet the demand of how many people need help right now. There are just not enough providers for the number of patients.”

That’s partly because they are not only getting requests from current and former patients with acute symptoms, but are also getting an influx of first-time patients struggling from pressures of the pandemic.

The Kaiser Family Foundation says more than 30% of South Carolinian adults reported having symptoms of depression or anxiety in March alone.

Kids can struggle to cope, too. Coker says while kids are resilient, changes this big can be very difficult for them.

“I think the number of kids coming in for inpatient treatment is a lot higher than it’s been before, so that shows how our kids are handling it - which isn’t great,” she said.

She also said it’s important to know kids absorb the moods and discussions around them, and it can make them feel scared, anxious or depressed if the adults in their lives talk and act that way.

There are some red flags for parents to look out that would warrant immediate mental health help for kids.

Coker said that includes kids giving up wanting to socialize, doom and gloom comments such as “what’s the point” and any sign they are having suicidal thoughts.

Red Flags National has more information on mental health warnings in children.

Many patients, Coker said, stay positive by looking forward to getting a vaccine to protect themselves and others. The thought of eliminating that risk of exposure or guilt of transmitting the virus is very helpful.

“A lot of people are really looking forward to getting a vaccine so they can feel a little safer and not expose themselves and someone they love,” she added. “I am hopeful for the next steps and what comes next. I urge everyone to be careful and cautious because we’re not quite there yet.”

A Kaiser Health poll also found 36% of adults last year had trouble sleeping. Others said coronavirus stress caused them eat more and to drink or use drugs more frequently.

For a list of resources and further information about mental health help, check out the CDC’s website dedicated to mental health and coping during COVID-19.

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