The coronavirus pandemic has been a fixture of life for over six months, and the toll it is taking on the mental health of Monroe County residents is becoming increasingly clear.
“We know that substance use has increased across the state, and Monroe County is no exception, with an increase in substance use disorder intakes,” Human Support Services Clinical Director Adam Woehkle said. “Monroe County EMS data indicates that there has been a 34 percent increase in EMS calls categorized as behavioral health calls since the coronavirus pandemic began compared with the same time frame last year. This is in line with national trends… We have also seen an increase in crisis calls in the county. Many of these calls typically involve someone who is experiencing depression, anxiety and/or suicidal thoughts. Oftentimes, substance use is a factor with crisis calls.”
As more people need its help, HSS, like other organizations, has had to cope with mandatory closures of services.
Its Community Day Services program that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, for example, only reopened on Sept. 9 at 25 percent capacity.
That was not too detrimental initially, as the nonprofit saw a dip in individuals seeking mental health and substance use services in April and March.
After about two months, however, people began seeking out those services again in larger numbers than before the pandemic, HSS Executive Director Anne Riley said.
HSS moved to compensate using telehealth, including for those covered by Medicaid and private insurance, for a variety of services including for substance use disorder, though Riley said that had its own challenges.
“Intakes to help get individuals in for their initial assessments were challenging as there is a need to see people in person for these services,” Riley explained. “This has been an ongoing challenge as some do not have access to telehealth to attend groups like we have been used to providing in person”
Riley said she attributes the increased need for mental health services to stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, ranging from the difficulties remote learning can put on families to depression and anxiety the public health crisis as a whole can foster.
But Riley said the main reasons for the rise in mental health issues are the isolation and lack of connection many people feel as they strive to social distance.
“I believe that we will continue to see the increased need for mental health and substance use services for a long time to come,” Riley predicted. “We are only six months into the pandemic. We are only beginning to learn how to navigate this ‘new normal’ as the school year begins and businesses try to maintain and recover from the ongoing effects of COVID-19. Right now, it is hard for a lot of people to acknowledge the impact that this environment is truly having on them. What I can say is that when people are ready to talk about it, when people need the help, HSS will be here.”
The increased need for HSS comes at a difficult time for the nonprofit because it is suffering financially from the pandemic like most others.
HSS is facing a funding shortfall of over $400,000 from not being able to provide programs like its Community Day Training services, the initial decrease in demand during the first couple months of the pandemic and the cancellation of fundraising events.
The largest gap in revenue, however, comes because HSS has lost all funding from United Way of Greater St. Louis, which has given money to HSS since 1983 but changed funding priorities this year.
That nonprofit added “additional lenses” to its screening process to ensure its money went to the most needy areas, and HSS lost funding as a side effect.
“There is not another agency in the county like ours, and there is no other agency in the county that is funded by United Way to provide the critical services that we provide,” Riley said. “The annual funding from the United Way was $213,000.”
HSS has not had to cut any services yet given this lack of funding, and it is working to recoup as much of that money as it can.
It has launched a fundraising campaign called Invest in People, with the goal of raising $86,500 by the end of 2020. It is also hosting small fundraising dinner parties at The SeeMore Inn in Waterloo and doing a direct mail campaign along with personal visits to longtime donors.
Another large effort HSS is trying is asking businesses that work with United Way to offer HSS-specific pledge cards that would allow employees to donate money as part of a one-time gift or regular payroll deduction to HSS.
“HSS is not always top of mind when thinking about nonprofit organizations that are in need of charitable funds in this community,” HSS Development Director Lea Chandrl said. “Unfortunately, there is a stigma around mental health, and so there are less advocates in the community for our organizations who have received services or have had their friends or family receive services. That does not mean what we do is less important, it is just harder to talk about. Last fiscal year, HSS served 1,535 people in Monroe County between our behavioral health programs and our services for individuals with developmental disabilities… Donations help us cover the cost of providing these vital services to the community.”
For more on these fundraisers or to donate, visit hss1.org.