How COVID-19’s social distancing impacts those struggling with mental health, addiction

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Mental health patients are ditching the couch and picking up their phones. Millions of Americans are turning to online apps for therapy treatment. USA TODAY

Social distancing recommendations that seek to slow the spread of COVID-19 are affecting the lives of many throughout central Pennsylvania. 

For those struggling with their mental health or addiction, the isolation can be “devastating,” and limited face-to-face contact can be detrimental when trying to cope with mental hurdles.

Shai Ivgi of Penn Township is three years into his recovery journey. Although he has heard of people still attending meetings, he said he’s decided to stay home as recommended.

“I can tell you I can definitely feel the effects of not surrounding myself with other people in recovery in person,” Ivgi said. “I think I’m probably just a little more restless than I would normally be.”

He said social distancing “can be devastating for someone in early recovery,” because it takes away from the shared experience aspect of recovery meetings. 

John Lloyd, founder of Noah’s House Inc. recovery homes in Franklin County, said that it’s all about a peer-to-peer philosophy. 

“When you’re able to connect with another individual that has been where you’ve been … they can give you some encouragement to help you get through it,” Lloyd said.

Such individuals remind others struggling with addiction that when life gets hard they don’t have to turn to drugs, alcohol or other negative coping mechanisms, Lloyd said. Meetings encourage people to show up for that change: “You got to be reachable to be teachable.”

To accommodate the gathering restrictions, individuals, groups and organizations are offering more digital options to give support in this time of need.

Ivgi started a virtual Zoom meeting available for anyone in recovery to join, share experiences and help others stay strong in this time of isolation. The meeting code is 580 295 4766, and it’s at 5 p.m. every day.

More: Coronavirus updates: Pa. coronavirus cases surpasses 1,000; stay-at-home order revised

Don’t ‘take the concept of social distancing to a level that creates isolation’

Counseling is important for anyone struggling with mental health issues. 

“For someone who already has some mental health concerns, this must really be a trying time for them because we often lean on our support networks … to help us get through the hardest times,” said psychotherapist and licensed social worker Troy Johnson.

One thing that might reduce the overall sense of anxiety during this time is the language that we use, said Johnson of Gettysburg.

“I think the idea of social distancing, the term that we’re applying to what we’re doing might even cause people to think that reaching out is sort of off the table as well, that we should make a distinction between social distancing and what we’re really doing right now which is physical distancing,” Johnson said.

“My encouragement is that people not take the concept of social distancing to a level that creates isolation for them.”

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Johnson has been doing telehealth counseling with some of his clients for about a year now, and he said clients appreciate the flexibility of it. He has now moved all his clients to online sessions.

To help others cope with the stress and anxiety that may be present during this COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson is encouraging people to reach out to him for a session. He uses a HIPPA complaint format.

“On any list of coping strategies for anxiety, ‘talking to someone’ is usually there. This is why counseling can be so effective in a situation like this. It can help people gain clarity, set priorities and have a partner in managing their stress,” Johnson said in a news release.

New patients can call Johnson at 717-420-4080 for a free 15-minute phone consultation, voicemails should be returned by the end of the day, or a session can be directly scheduled at TroyJohnsonCounseling.com. 

Johnson also said that he is willing to work on a rate that is affordable for each individual.

“I wouldn’t want people to feel like this would be something that’s cost prohibitive. Especially at a time now when people are so worried about their household expenses and income and worrying about the economy in general,” Johnson said.

Johnson works with Highmark BlueCross BlueShield insurance, which has waived all copays, deductibles and coinsurance of telemedicine for 90 days. 

Here is a list of other mental health resources available:

  • To search for a provider in a specific area or for a specific service, Pa’s Department of Human Services has a directory available on its website. 
  • Pennsylvania Mental Health Services offers access to publicly-funded mental health services for free or low-cost counseling. Contact information is listed for resources in each county.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration has a Disaster Distress Helplinethat gives immediate crisis counseling to people affected by COVID-19. The number is 1-800-985-5990.
  • Pennsylvania Warm Lines is an alternative to a crisis line because it is run by those that have experienced trauma in their own lives that they’re willing to speak of and acknowledge. Various numbers throughout Pennsylvania are available.
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These digital resources are available 

Pennsylvania’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs has been authorized to provide funding for outpatient substance use disorder treatment facilities to provide counseling and other services using telehealth technology during COVID-19 mitigation, according to a news release.

Video is preferred but telephone and in the home services are also acceptable, the release said.

Here is a list of digital resources that those struggling with addiction can utilize:

  • Pennsylvania Recovery Organizations Alliance has a list of online recovery support resources.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous has a general service website that they encourage people to use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some AA groups are taking advantage of ZOOM, Google Hangouts or conference calls to do meeting. They also provide a list of resources like videos and books. 
  • Narcotics Anonymous has issued a statement suggesting that groups temporarily stop common practices like hugging, shaking hands or offering refreshments. They also said that groups can do online meetings, but that is up to each group. Area groups can be found on the na.org website.
  • The Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services lists these mental health resources in PA.
    • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
    • Nacional de Prevención del Suicidio: 1-888-628-9454
    • Crisis Text Line: Text “PA” to 741-741 
    • Veteran Crisis Line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
    • Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990
  • Pennsylvania’s Get Help Now hotline is a confidential, 24/7 treatment and information service for those with drug and alcohol problems. The number is 1-800-662-HELP.

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Getting those in recovery their medications

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration has also released the following exceptions for Opioid Treatment Programs:

  • For patients who are stable, OTPs may prescribe take-home doses of up to 28 days.
  • For patients who are less than stable but the physician believes can safely handle take-home medication, OTPS may prescribe take-home doses up to 14 days.

One of those medications includes methadone, which requires patients to go to a clinic once a day or every other day to get their dosage and be monitored.

The Pyramid Healthcare York Methadone Maintenance Treatment Center has had to take precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The biggest concern is if … nurses and physicians get ill it would potentially shut down the program,” Medical Director Christopher Davis said. “We can’t shut down.”

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To prevent this, the staff is providing most patients with two weeks worth of methadone (13 bottles) and explaining the risk of overdose in taking too much of the medication. Those patients include those that have chronic illnesses, 65 years or older, or have a back balance with the clinic. 

“We will stop taking new patients because I feel they are too unstable to give two weeks of medications to,” Davis said.

Also, patients who are actively using are being asked to come in every other day because of their greater risk of overdose.

For those not eligible for the two week doses and under quarantine awaiting test results, the clinic is working with them to find a designated person to bring them their doses. Davis said this includes less than six patients. 

The clinic has about 530 patients that depend on methadone management, Davis said their goal is to give about 40 to 50 patients their medications a day.

Patients are also being screened with a questionnaire and a fever check before entering the facility.

In the meantime, the staff is taking precautions like wearing masks, gloves and wiping down surfaces regularly.

The clinic has also canceled all group therapy and individual counseling sessions. Davis said patients have been moved to telemedicine through the phone; they use a HIPPA compliant program called BlueJeans.

Physicians are also going to be holding appointments through this program by next week.

More: Some Pa. mental health patients end up with felonies, jail instead of the care they need

Anxious? Confused? ‘People are out there to help you’

In a time of anxiety, confusion and a sense of powerlessness, those considering suicide also have resources available digitally.

Prevent Suicide PA provides education on suicide prevention as well as a message board for those seeking help.

According to Executive Director Govan Martin, the top resources for suicidal individuals are:

“I would urge people if they are feeling suicidal, please reach out to one of these resources,” Martin said. “People are out there to help you.”

Some of the coping tips listed on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website include:

  • Setting a limit to media consumption, from social media to news outlets.
  • Stay active. Get rest and avoid too much caffeine or alcohol. Eat healthy when possible.
  • Connect with loved ones and others in a similar situation, talk about your feelings and enjoy conversation unrelated to the outbreak.
  • Get accurate information from reputable sources like the Centers for Disease Control.

More: Pa. courts to largely close to public for at least 2 weeks to reduce spread of coronavirus

‘Free time at home is the enemy’

Some with mental health or addiction issues rely on treatment courts in their county. 

Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an order for all Pennsylvania Courts to be generally closed to the public until April 3.

Here is a list of what each court is doing during the pandemic:

  • York County: Wellness courts will continue, but only individuals who are struggling in the program will be brought in, York County President Judge Joseph C. Adams said. Those in the program will continue to be supervised by their probation officers.
  • Lebanon County: The courthouse and all treatment proceedings are closed to the public, according to the court administration office. 
  • Franklin County: Good Wolf Treatment Court appearances are suspended, District Attorney Matt Fogal said in an email. Participants are still being monitored and assisted by probation officers and case managers, Fogal said.
  • Lancaster County: An administrative order has postponed all treatment courts until April 15, according to the office of President Judge David Ashworth. Probation officers will continue to monitor those in the program via phone and video calls.
  • Dauphin County: Veterans and drug treatment courts have been postponed by the county’s administrative order. Those in the program are still coming in for drug testing and electronic monitoring for alcohol (SCRAM testing), said Judge William Tully. To keep communication, the court is using digital outlets and looking for long term solutions if needed, Tully said.

“Free time at home is the enemy to those in recovery,” Judge Tully said.

Mariana Veloso is the Quality of Life reporter for the USA Today Network – Pennsylvania. Veloso focuses primarily on the opioid epidemic in southcentral PA, along with coverage of everyday issues in the Hanover area. If you have a story idea, you can email her at msveloso@eveningsun.com. Follow her on Twitter @MariVeloso9 to stay up to date with her latest articles.

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