COVID-19 Pandemic Creating Mental and Behavioral Health Crisis: Will County Reminds Residents Help Is A Call Away

Isolation and limited recovery supports increasing risk for relapse and fatal overdose for those addicted to substance abuse

The prolonged coronavirus pandemic has created many unintended consequences. Sixty-two percent of Americans have reported feeling more anxious this year compared with last year, according to a public opinion poll released recently by the American Psychiatric Association. The COVID-19 pandemic is first a physical health crisis, but it is also fueling a major mental and behavioral health crisis.

“While a vaccine has been developed and sectors of the population are receiving these inoculations, there is still a long way to go before we begin to resume any type of normalcy,” said Will County Executive Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant. “I encourage anyone who is experiencing feelings of stress or anxiety to reach out for help.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, increased stress can be directly linked to the pandemic. Because of the isolation caused by social restrictions and the inability to access treatment and community recovery supports, people with Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) are placed at significantly higher risk for relapse and subsequent fatal overdose. More people are using alcohol and substances to cope with stress caused by COVID-19. In Will County, the Office of Substance Use Initiatives (SUI), under the County Executive Office, has responded to the changing landscape.

“We developed a Rapid Response Naloxone Program to address high risk time periods and locations for people with an opioids use disorder (OUD),” said Dr. Kathleen Burke, director of the SUI office. “A team of recovery coaches distributes naloxone throughout the county. The team focuses on areas that experience a large number of overdoses. Materials distributed identify locations for treatment, peer support and naloxone. Peer support helps people become and stay engaged in the recovery process and reduces the likelihood of relapse.”

The Illinois Department of Human Services/Substance Use Prevention and Recovery funds this project. According to Burke, people with mental health and substance use disorders often face barriers in attempts to seek treatment, which are even greater during the pandemic. Providing access to naloxone and recovery assistance is critical to saving lives.

“A primary principle must be the recognition that mental illness and SUDs are chronic, relapsing illnesses and, for those with more severe conditions, will require ongoing care,” Burke said.

In 2020, the SUI Office and the county’s Workforce Services Division created a joint program to support long-term recovery. Funded by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the program was initiated to increase members of the behavioral health workforce by training individuals to be Recovery Coaches and remain working in the community. Recovery coaches are critical during the pandemic to keep people connected to support services.

“Based on existing trends, we can expect the rising need for mental health and substance use disorder treatment and recovery services for years to come,” said Burke.

If you or someone you know is experiencing an opioids or other substance use disorder, call the Illinois Helpline at 1-833-2FINDHELP (833) 234-6343.