Mental health has been ‘a second pandemic’ during a year of COVID-19, Utah doctors say

Reports of substance abuse, anxiety and depression have increased in the last year, say doctors at Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

(Photo courtesy of University of Utah Health) Dr. Mark Rapaport, CEO of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute and chair of the University of Utah's department of psychiatry, speaking Thursday, March 11, 2021, about the mental health challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought.

A year of the COVID-19 pandemic — which has caused more than half a million deaths nationwide, and more than 2,000 in Utah — also has done damage to our mental wellbeing, the head of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute said.

Mental health has become “a second pandemic within that pandemic right now,” Dr. Mark Rapaport, the institute’s CEO and chair of the University of Utah’s department of psychiatry, said Thursday, on the first anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration that the COVID-19 spread was a global pandemic.

When the pandemic started, Rapaport said in a teleconference with media, “all of a sudden, there was a sense of helplessness. All of a sudden there was a change in agency, a change in our belief that somehow we controlled our lives and controlled our fates.”

With those changes, Rapaport said, have come challenges to mental health. In surveys, 40% of those responding said they have had problems with anxiety and depression, he said, and both alcohol sales and problems with substance-abuse disorders have skyrocketed.

Not everything has been bleak, though. “All of a sudden, there’s a sense of compassion that any of us can develop brain disorders like depression or anxiety disorder or PTSD,” Rapaport said. “All of a sudden, people understand that any of us may be subject to brain disorders like substance-use disorders.”

Dr. Kristin Francis, an expert in adult, child and adolescent psychiatry at the institute, said the pandemic “has been really hard on young people.”

The rates of substance abuse and recent suicidal thoughts are twice as high among teens than among adults, Francis said. Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are reporting that emergency room visits for mental health concerns by young people are up nearly 50%.

Francis urged people to watch for warning signs: “If your kid suddenly is irritable, not eating, not sleeping well, not able to go to school, not wanting to play with friends, talking about senses of hopelessness or anxiety, that they can’t manage enough to do what we normally have them do — these are all signs that they need help and support.”

Francis said she’s also seen more health care workers seeking help for mental health issues. But, “we’re also seeing more providers and physicians waiting to seek help, and sometimes that results in waiting too long,” Francis said.

Institute officials touted their services to help Utahns in times of crisis. Those include the Utah Crisis Line, a 24/7 phone line offering free and confidential health and support at 1-800-273-TALK. It’s affiliated with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

There’s also the Utah WarmLine, where those having problems can speak to people who have gone through similar circumstances. It’s also free, and open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week, at 833-SPEAKUT.

Calls to the Utah Crisis Line this month are up 42% from the same time last year, according to University of Utah Health. Calls to the Utah WarmLine are up 68% in the same period.

Even after the coronavirus has been contained, Rapaport said, the mental health issues the pandemic left behind could remain for years.

“We don’t know the impact of all of these changes on children of different ages,” Rapaport said, adding that the effect the pandemic has had on first responders and health care workers is also not fully understood. “We have to be very, very vigilant,” he said.

If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the Utah Crisis Line (affiliated with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

Editor’s note: Paul Huntsman, chairman of the board of The Salt Lake Tribune, is a member of the Huntsman family, who are the major benefactors of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.