Mental health challenges remain in Erie County
Ana Aponte saw signs of growth in her son, Enrique Maldanado, as the boy met with a therapist from the Achievement Center weekly.
Enrique, 9, started asking more questions in class and his grades improved. He didn’t hesitate to chat at Erie’s family home.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The Achievement Center, like so many other behavioral health organizations, has halted in-person therapy sessions.
“At first they tried to get them over the phone,” Aponte said. “I felt like it just wasn’t the same, not being able to see the therapist and have that connection. She couldn’t see that Enrique wasn’t paying attention. It was a little better with the video calls, but he would sometimes cover his head with a blanket or walk away.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many facets of daily life, including mental health services. This limited the way therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists could visit their patients, while increasing the number of people suffering from mental health problems, particularly depression and anxiety.
Although patients like Enrique can now see their mental health care providers face to face, the effect of the pandemic is still being felt.
“On the inpatient side, our volume and acuity were higher than usual. Our volume was up 12%,” said Danielle Hansen, DO, vice president of behavioral health at LECOM Health. “It could be that with all the dialogue around mental health, there’s less stigma around seeking services. But it’s also likely that there are just more people with these illnesses.”
In 2020, Erie County saw a 13.5% increase — from 408 to 463 — in the number of residents involuntarily hospitalized for mental illnesses, according to John DiMattio, director of the Erie County Department of Social Services.
“The number is down in 2021 (to 427) and the rate is about the same so far in 2022, but it’s still higher than what we saw in 2019 before the pandemic started,” DiMattio said. .
UPMC Western Behavioral Health in Safe Harbor saw its number of calls from Erie County first responders for crisis response services increase significantly in 2021, from 416 calls to 544.
Such a rapid increase indicates that more people are suffering from behavioral illnesses serious enough to involve police and other first responders, said Mandy Fauble, executive director of Safe Harbor.
“What we’re seeing is consistent with what’s happening nationally,” Fauble said. “We are seeing an increase in demand for services and an increase in acuity, people are going through a tougher time when we first see them.”
Mental health care providers are also struggling to fill vacancies
As providers see more and more seriously ill patients, some of them are also struggling to hire employees.
There’s enough demand at the Achievement Center to increase enrollment by 25%, said Cassie Dundon, the center’s executive director. But as has been the case for so many healthcare providers, recruiting and retaining workers has been a challenge during the pandemic.
One of the most affected programs is the centre’s family mental health service. A team of social workers and other staff provide 24/7 crisis support in a patient’s home, which can help stabilize an acute mental health issue quickly and reduce the risk of additional problems, Dundon said.
“Right now it’s an eight to 12 week wait for this particular program,” Dundon said. “It’s too long to go without treatment, so what happens is we offer outpatient therapy or the patient voluntarily goes for hospital help.”
The Success Center is not alone. Providers across the country are looking to hire more psychiatrists, counselors, social workers and behavioral technicians.
The long-term answer is to encourage more students to enter the field of behavioral health, Hansen said.
“We need to work with local colleges and universities to influence students in their career choices, so we can fuel the pipeline of future mental health workers,” Hansen said. “I wish we had some short-term answers, though.”
Erie Hospital responds to mental health needs
St. Vincent’s Hospital has recently made changes to improve the mental health of its patients and plans to make more.
Erie Hospital has added social workers to its primary care offices to provide behavioral health support to patients who express issues with anxiety or depression when meeting with their provider.
“When a doctor or staff member feels there is a behavioral health issue during the visit, they can contact the social worker and the patient can be seen on site,” said Nina Ferraro, director of the behavioral health of Saint Vincent.
Saint Vincent is also working with county officials and others to see if adding behavioral health outpatient services will help meet the need for more providers.
“We are currently looking at what Saint Vincent could offer to add to the continuity of care,” Ferraro said.
The pandemic has also affected mental health services more directly. Safe Harbor has had to close its Crisis Living Unit twice due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
The first time was in April-May 2020 and the closure lasted about a month. The second took place later in the pandemic and lasted a few days.
“We were able to redeploy patients to other providers so it didn’t impact their treatment,” said Stacey Buettner, director of crisis services at Safe Harbor.
‘Slowly but surely’ things are getting better for Enrique and his family
Enrique has also been directly affected by the pandemic itself. Stories about COVID-19 and the spread of the pandemic heightened his anxiety and worried him.
He also missed seeing his friends and the basic routine of getting ready for school each weekday morning, Aponte said.
“Enrique would be afraid of getting sick and then making me sick or making his friends sick,” Aponte said. “It got to the point that I didn’t even want to watch the news with him anymore.”
The situation improved last year once Enrique returned to in-person classes at school and was able to visit his therapist in person.
“We also went back to those routines,” Aponte said. “I would get Enrique and (his brother) Emilio up in the morning by blasting a song. When we were all stuck at home, it was 10 times harder to get them up.”
Now the boys are more eager to get up and start their days. Although life isn’t quite normal, it’s better than it was, Aponte said.
“It’s better,” Aponte said. “Slowly but surely.”