Tiffany Stubbs never felt depressed before the coronavirus pandemic, but it has become an all-too-familiar emotional experience during the past five months.

Juggling being a mother and teacher to her 6-year-old son, she is trying to make ends meet on Social Security disability income that she and her son receive. She already had problems with her physical health and some anxiety issues, but the pandemic added another layer of adversity.

“I am experiencing a bunch of new struggles, and I feel like I was just handling things better before the pandemic,” Stubbs said. “We don’t have a car or friends or family to help us, so when COVID-19 shut things down, it just got really hard.”

For many people, the angst caused by the months-long pandemic and its accompanying changes to daily life has caused heightened emotions that are hard to handle.

As a result, the number of people seeking mental health services in Bexar County has risen dramatically due to the pandemic, with both children and adults struggling with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, according to mental health professionals. Crisis call centers also are being flooded with calls from people having trouble coping with issues of financial strain, worries about COVID-19, and social isolation.

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Many people seeking help for depression and anxiety are doing so for the first time, said Jelynne LeBlanc Burley, president and CEO of the Center for Health Care Services, which runs Bexar County’s mental health program. “It’s unprecedented with them, and many of them have difficulty really identifying what’s going on because they’ve never experienced this before.”

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, roughly one in 12 American adults reported symptoms of an anxiety disorder at this time last year; as of late July, it’s more than one in three. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll found that for the first time, a majority of U.S. adults – 53 percent – believe that the pandemic is taking a toll on their mental health.

Stubbs, who was seeing a counselor before the pandemic, said that while her mental health has worsened, her son’s attention deficit disorder and oppositional defiant disorder are magnified making him irritable, unable to focus, and sometimes act aggressively.

“It has been hard to manage both his emotions and my own,” Stubbs said.

Tiffany Stubbs Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Crisis Line Information

HHSC COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line: (833) 986-1919

Center for Health Care Services: Crisis Line: (210) 223-7233 or (800) 316-9241

The Center for Health Care Services has seen an increase in the number of calls to its crisis line and had 50 referrals from the round-the-clock mental health support line. The crisis hotline was created by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission in March to help Texans experiencing anxiety, stress, or emotional challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Burley said. 

The Center for Health Care Services, which received state funding to create a mental health program exclusively for issues related to the pandemic, has connected 301 people to mental health providers as of Wednesday, Burley said. 

The statewide mental health support line has received 6,175 total calls from March 31 to Aug. 12, with most callers seeking emotional support, mental health support, or COVID-19 testing and medical information, according to HHS officials. 

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Cyndi Manes worked as a provider for disabled children. During that time, while regularly seeing a therapist and psychiatrist for years, she felt like she “had a life that was meaningful” where she contributed to the world. Since the pandemic, that feeling has faded.

“One of the biggest things is how hard this is for everybody, and how we have all had something taken away from us,” Manes said. “The biggest thing is just loss, which I think is normal, but it doesn’t make it any less hard. It’s grief.”

Clarity Child Guidance Center, a nonprofit inpatient treatment center that focuses on youth age 3 to 17, recently has seen more children admitted because they are thinking of harming themselves or someone else, CEO Jessica Knudsen said. She believes this is due to increased levels of stress and adversity brought on by the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on their daily lives.

“This is a very traumatic time for them if you think about what our children have lost, and we really have to validate that,” Knudsen said. “It may seem a little insignificant, but their prom, their graduation, their summer beach trip, all the things that are just so vital even developmentally for their interaction with their peer group is going to have a lasting impact. I don’t think we know yet what the full ramifications of this pandemic are going to be on our kids.”

According to statistics from the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office, at least 150 people are estimated to have died by suicide so far this year, which is more than half of each of the past two years total suicides.

Both Clarity Child Guidance Center and the Center for Health Care Services said that the summer months are typically less busy for mental health providers since schools are the main referral system, and sometimes people take a break from counseling during the summer months. But the pattern has changed this summer because of how the stresses of COVID-19 are playing out in communities and households.

Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, a mental health advocacy group, said that “as much as we think we should be doing testing for COVID-19, we ought to be doing the same for screening for mental health issues during this time.”

At a webinar on Aug. 12 focused on confronting the mental health effects of COVID-19, Gionfriddo said that since the start of the pandemic, about 90,000 people who have taken a mental health screening on the Mental Health America website said they have thoughts about suicide or self-harm most days of the week. 

“When we are seeing problems that are that big across the nation, we really need to be thinking about addressing them at the earliest possible time,” Gionfriddo said. “We have opportunities to think about all people at this point, and have opportunities to recognize that not only is COVID-19 taking a huge toll on the mental health of the nation, but that’s a toll that has been taken even before the pandemic.”

To address mental health issues early on before they are exacerbated to the point of crisis would take more government funding for mental health services as well as increased mental health screenings to ensure concerns are caught early on, Gionfriddo said.

Both Gionfriddo and Burley said that the real issue with mental health services is that people think about mental health issues differently than they do physical ailments such as heart disease or arthritis.  

“Just as you would go to your primary care physician when your tummy hurts,” people should seek mental health support when they are experiencing anxiety and depression. “It is treatable, and getting support will help a person return to feeling like their normal self,” Burley said.

Providing mental health services to those who need it now is just the “tip of the iceberg,” Knudsen said. “There is still a risk for people to develop post-traumatic stress disorder once this pandemic is over,” and they will need continued treatment.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.