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State prepares to weather bleak mental health forecast that shows millions of Washingtonians adversely affected

Frontier Behavioral Health will operate the local version of a new “warm” call line, which will be for individuals who are seeking mental-health support during the coronavirus pandemic but who don’t necessarily need urgent or crisis-level mental health care. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The toll the COVID-19 pandemic takes won’t only be physical, experts anticipate.

Mental health experts estimate 2 million to 3 million Washington residents’ mental health will be adversely impacted by the virus, and the restrictions imposed to contain it, in the coming months.

A Washington State Department of Health analysis forecasts heightened levels of acute stress and anxiety, followed by high rates of depression by fall, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But experts say individuals – and the health care system at large – can do something about it.

Dr. Kira Mauseth, clinical psychologist and professor at Seattle University, said the majority of people come through disasters with a sense of resiliency, which can be buoyed by making connections to others, finding purpose and remaining flexible and adaptive to the situation.

Mauseth said research suggests it is likely that behavioral responses to the pandemic this summer will involve people “acting out,” through substance use, violence and aggression.

Local mental health providers as well as the state Health Care Authority are working to ensure and expand access to services as the pandemic persists. Waterland said that means providing laptops, cellphones and Zoom licenses to providers, in order to increase telehealth capacity.

“These are unprecedented times, and it’s OK to not feel OK,” Dr. Keri Waterland, director of behavioral health at the Health Care Authority, told reporters Thursday.

Washington state received $2.2 million in federal funding to create a “warm” call line, which will be for individuals who are seeking mental-health support but don’t necessarily need urgent or crisis-level mental health care.

In Spokane, Frontier Behavioral Health will help provide that call-line service, though details about the program are still in the works.

The Health Care Authority also received a $2 million grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which will be used to expand and administer regional treatment and service options.

Mauseth emphasized that it is important to prepare now, even if that only means people regularly reach out to friends and family for support.

“We will do better if we are connected to each other,” she said.

Connection can be hard to come by for people who do not have access to cellphones, however, and local mental health providers are working to connect people to phones so they can access telehealth for mental health care.

The Inland COVID-19 Emergency Coordination Center has a dedicated behavioral health task force trying to get phones to people who need them, primarily through a Federal Communications Commission program called Lifeline, which enables people with low or no income to access a phone line.

The majority of outpatient mental health care in the Spokane area switched to telehealth during the pandemic, meaning a person meets with their counselor over the phone or video chat, not in person.

Keeping people connected to the services they need is the ECC task force’s goal.

“The significant move of outpatient-based behavioral health services now moving to a different platform is something we’re acutely aware of and working towards making resources more easily available to people so they can be allowed the same access,” said Dan Barth, who is with Inland Northwest Behavioral Health and who is leading the task force.

Frontier Behavioral Health switched all of its outpatient services to virtual or telehealth in mid-March, and the organization purchased some phones for clients, in addition to using the Lifeline program to keep patients connected.

Group therapy sessions took longer to coordinate virtually, said Frontier CEO Jeff Thomas, but the organization plans to keep those going virtually as well.

For now, Frontier still has capacity to take in new clients, which Thomas said has been at about 75% of its normal count. Going forward, Thomas said he expects the forecasts will be correct and that there will be an uptick in people experiencing anxiety and depression on all measures.

From the person who has to adjust to working from home with kids always interrupting to the person who is stuck in their residence alone and isolated, the pandemic has not made mental health any easier to maintain. That’s in addition, of course, to dealing with a pandemic that may threaten a person’s health, well-being, job security or finances.

“It’s the perfect storm,” Thomas said.

And the near future, Thomas said, is “not going to be without challenges.”

A state Department of Health report estimates that as society enters the “disillusionment” stage of behavior in response to the pandemic, depression rates will rise, peaking between October and December, when the highest risk for suicide is anticipated.

But the forecast could change as the number COVID-19 cases rise or fall. Currently, statewide numbers are trending downward.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.