When Paul McCartney of the Beatles was recently interviewed, he discussed writing lyrics for his song “Getting Better.” As McCartney began to sing, “I’ve got to admit, it’s getting better, a little better all the time,” the ever consummate cynic John Lennon chimed in, “It can’t get no worse.”
This lyrical phrase so perfectly captures 2020, a year of widespread reckoning of our beliefs, especially those involving racism and mental health. While so much of the news has been awful in the past year, there has emerged a tremendous amount of hope in Newport County and beyond.
In Newport County as well as elsewhere, people of all walks of life have come together to support Black Lives Matter and have an increased recognition that something needs to be done about unnecessary police violence.
In addition, mental health finally went digital. We, in the field, had been discussing telehealth for quite some time in our effort to help clients who had difficulty keeping appointments because of transportation issues. With the advent of the pandemic, we were able to turn to telehealth. For now, community mental health centers and others will continue to get reimbursed from insurance companies when they provide telehealth. Yet as cynic Lennon might say, going digital “doesn’t do no good if you don’t see anyone in person.” At least, clients and patients will have a choice of holding appointments via telehealth or in person after everyone is inoculated.
During 2020 we also began a sweeping outreach program for the homeless population that brought together local and state organizations along with individual donors and charitable organizations. The new temporary housing program kept close to 50 individuals and families with a safe and healthy place to stay. We were also able to provide mental health treatment for many of these people who would ordinarily be difficult to locate and engage in the community. Funding for permanent housing for homeless individuals is also being secured; yet the caveat is finding local landlords will to offer them apartments.
Certainly, there is no point in sugarcoating the work that still needs to be done.
If you haven’t already heard there’s a logjam at RI’s emergency rooms lately with COVID patients, of course, but also children and young adults, who are waiting for beds in psychiatric facilities. They’re waiting because it’s unsafe for them to be at home or by themselves unmonitored. They are suicidal, in distress and waiting, sometimes for more than a few days.
At last count, since the pandemic began, three to four times as many adolescents and young adults self-reported that they were experiencing extreme anxiety and depression symptoms that were interfering with their abilities to function on a daily basis. One recent survey indicated that 25% of school age children reported contemplating suicide in the past month. Admissions to children psychiatric inpatient hospitals in Rhode Island has already doubled over the past 10 years and has escalated dramatically during the pandemic. While we are concerned about ICU beds at medical hospitals keeping up with a surge in admissions, reduced capacity of children’s psychiatric impatient beds has already occurred, though not widely publicized. Children in need
of hospitalization are being boarded for days in our hospital emergency departments, both in Newport and across the state.
Those in lower socioeconomic groups and ethnic minorities are particularly hard hit. They faced an increased risk of psychiatric disorders before the pandemic, and now that the pandemic has lasted perhaps longer than expected, rates are on the rise, too. So much for racial equality.
Here are more highlights from our July 2020 column on racial inequity:
· If you are an African American, you will be hard pressed to find therapists who are black.
· If you need of a psychiatrist and have a specific doctor in mind, you will be lucky if the psychiatrist takes any type of health insurance. Less than 50 percent of U.S. psychiatrists accept insurance. That means you must have a hefty wallet to be capable of paying out of pocket for your doctor visits.
· If you are a person who is part of the LGBTQ community, there is not a Newport County healthcare LGBTQ Safe Zone certified provider or one who fully understands and practices your needs and has such things as gender neutral bathrooms and documents with proper pronouns that fit your orientation. (Newport Mental Health plans to become a certified LGBTQ Safe Zone by this spring).
For each of the bullets above, there are antidotes. Newport Mental Health, has been actively recruiting minorities and since January 2020, the agency has filled 19 percent of our openings with minorities. Yet still we’re hard-pressed to find therapists who are black or Spanish speaking. We do have psychiatrists and we do accept all insurances, including individuals with no insurance.
Truth be told, the negatives of 2020 often brought about changes. With the rising numbers of young adults who need intensive mental health services, for example, Newport Mental Health recently opened a Young Adult Center for 16-25-year–olds. In the past, you could not get this type of treatment, where young adults with serious mental health challenges could keep their jobs or stay in school. The center specializes in rigorous therapy and services for individuals with a higher complexity of behavioral health needs and mind you, those numbers are increasingly growing.
Throughout 2021, we will continue to feel the isolation, grief and loss, but there has been a heroic response by our healthcare, human service and other essential workers. We have seen unprecedented generosity from people in our community and collaboration between local agencies, who are more prepared now than ever before to help you, something we are sure will continue after the pandemic is over.
Jamie Lehane is president and CEO of Newport Mental Health in Middletown. Peace of Mind, which is co-written with Sandra Oxx, runs in The Daily News and online at newportri.com.