America’s mental health crisis — a looming issue for years — is developing into catastrophic proportions amid COVID-19.

That was one takeaway from a conference call convened by Sen. Amy Klobuchar and a number of central Minnesota mental health experts Friday, Sept. 4. Klobuchar’s conference call comes shortly after General Social Survey results out of the University of Chicago revealed roughly 1 out of 10 Americans have seriously contemplated suicide in the month of June. More than 1 out of 4 young adults — those ages 18-24 — seriously considered ending their life in that time frame. For adults ages 25-44, that number was over 16%.

Looking at the issue from the ground in an anecdotal sense, what was already a deeply concerning social ill has only continued to degenerate and devolve. Social services — whether it’s crisis help lines, county court systems, social workers, mental health institutions, substance abuse centers and volunteer organizations of all kinds — are being pushed to the breaking point.

Klobuchar emphasized this is an issue that’s long been at the forefront for many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, but noted the state of rural mental health is especially troubling, judging by the data. In turn, mental health care experts throughout central Minnesota said caretakers and many dealing with mental illness have risen to the occasion in surprising ways, but the situation is unprecedentedly dire.
“The pandemic has really put a big magnifying glass on what we know is already an issue with people's access to mental health services and the problems they've been having,” Klobuchar said. “But yet, it's harder. Fifty-three percent of adults in the U.S. say the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health.”

“You can imagine people who are already struggling with mental illness and substance abuse, economic hardship, the challenge of being isolated,” Klobuchar added. “The challenge of being distant from people even when you are with them, can make this really, really tough.”

Klobuchar was joined by Sadie Hosley, executive director of Recovering Hope Treatment Center in Mora; Kim Larson, the health and human services adult services supervisor for Aitkin County; Sam Anderson, the director of the Brainerd center for Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge; Mary Marana, north-central region director for the Northern Alliance of Mental Illness; Karyn Hansen of Isanti County Family Services; as well as others.

Hosley urged the senator to push state and national health authorities to provide clearer guidance to health care organizations in terms of COVID-19, noting the Minnesota Department of Health often gives inadequate or vague guidance in terms of proper procedure until, she noted, a COVID-19 infection has already occured in a vulnerable populace.

Larson pointed out that county court systems are overbooked and overtaxed, while, in turn, people who have committed crimes — and may require institutional care — are out on the streets instead of being incarcerated. This, in turn, as Anderson noted, means more and more people are facing issues of addiction on their own terms, in isolation.

“Virtual AA meetings and support groups just aren't the same. Everybody says, ‘I need physical contact, I need to look the person in the eye, I don’t know what's going on,’” Anderson said. “It’s not a problem in Brainerd, we're at about 97% capacity, but Minneapolis or Rochester or Duluth are actually down in admission. And a lot of that’s because people aren’t getting arrested and not in enough trouble yet to say, ‘I got to go get treatment.’”

This kind of isolation can’t be fully addressed with virtual meetings or phone calls, Hansen said, where much of human connection is lost in translation. People need to speak with each other, have those face to face conversations, feel human warmth and affirmation — an aspect of normal relations, these mental health experts stated at numerous points, that’s been absent from months now.

“Humans need that facial expression and eye contact and for those that live alone, or have lost their jobs, or don’t have a lot of family and friends, that isolation is getting harder and harder,” Hansen said.

And one byproduct of that scenario is crisis lines are flooded with calls, while crisis centers have fewer and fewer workers or volunteers to carry the strain. Marana, who is also the executive director of the Baxter-based Crisis Line and Referral Service, estimated crisis line calls have risen 25-30% since the advent of COVID-19 social distancing measures went into effect and much of the state has been subject to closures. One such side effect is burnout and burgeoning mental health issues among the caretakers themselves.

“We're all suffering from acute stress whether we recognize it or not,” Marana said. “We've lost probably a third of our volunteers and we're not alone in that other organizations also have lost volunteers.”

Klobuchar noted the U.S. Congress will consider a number of measures to counteract the effects of COVID-19 on society — pointing to stimulus funding and provisions of the HEROES Act she said will help to mitigate the situation. Anderson agreed many of these measures are necessary, but noted COVID-19 is complicating otherwise well-intentioned efforts to help the vulnerable, disenfranchised and unwell.

“Normally, I would say we need more funding, but in one case, it really didn’t help. When the stimulus came out, it was hard for addicts,” Anderson said. “They get a lot of money in their hands. It actually created a lot of relapses. That’s very tempting to just have a lot of money and then be laid off. It was a recipe for disaster for addicts. It was very difficult. I've seen more relapses in these last few months than ever in my career.”