How has the state of mental health in Chicago changed since the pandemic began?

For the first time [employers] responded to their employees and their need for mental health support. I’d heard that years and years ago, [a hospital] wanted to do a study on the West Side around depression and heart disease, and they couldn’t get anybody to sign up. Then they changed their language to “stress and heart disease,” and had all of these men of color sign up. When we started talking about [the pandemic] as “stress” and “loneliness” and “isolation,” those words were so much more digestible for folks. What we saw with adults was a higher rate of substance abuse and much higher rates of anxiety and depression, and a lot of this data comes from workforce surveys. With adults we’ve also seen higher rates of relationship challenges and domestic issues, which are clearly directly related to our mental health.

What other signs have you seen that mental health has become more of an issue? Are more folks seeking services?

Unfortunately, we’ve seen it a lot in very tragic incidents. We see suicide increase, which is awful. The bed capacity [at mental health facilities], specifically for children, is grossly underresourced. We know there are a lot of people who have been boarded in emergency departments. And at the beginning of COVID, it was really complicated because folks who were in psychiatric crisis didn’t want to go to their treatment providers for fear of getting COVID. So certainly the increase in calls to our help line [833-626-4244], and also an increase in the length of those calls, is interesting.

Are there any demographic groups who have had worse mental health experiences during the pandemic than others?

I recently read a report that we saw very high rates of nurses dying by suicide. So, health care workers and front-line workers, generally. People who never really got a break. We [at NAMI] haven’t stopped working either, and if I cry one more day at work, my colleagues are like, “I’m literally taking you off the schedule next week.” It’s not sustainable to be in a high arousal state so much while you are also struggling with your family.

A report early last year from Lurie Children’s Hospital showed that nearly half of Chicago parents had reached out to their child’s primary care physician with a mental health concern during the pandemic. Can you speak to some of the ways in which children, in particular, are experiencing mental health hurdles?

They probably are getting it the worst. Anxiety is contagious, so how did we feel as parents and caregivers? Highly anxious, highly chaotic. And that in itself could have been very traumatizing, particularly for children who were already predisposed to depression and anxiety. We’ve seen high rates of eating disorders. We also saw a huge disruption in the school system. Many students with IEPs — individual education plans — were getting their [social] services within the school, and when they weren’t getting those things, it couldn’t be Zoomed. I think we’re seeing the outcome of that disruption now with higher rates of hospitalizations, particularly for children with developmental or intellectual disabilities who are demonstrating more behavioral issues. Fortunately for Chicagoans, our help line is the clearinghouse for mental health resources. We’re a one-stop shop. Our clinicians can start [the process] by texting resources and providing mental health coaching.

What are some other ways that parents can help support their children who are dealing with anxiety and depression?

Parents really need to ask their children what they need, and I don’t think that starts at any particular age. The other thing is that we should witness their pain. The worst thing to do is punish them during a tantrum or during an emotional experience, because we have tantrums as adults, and we get upset, and that is not at all the space to problem-solve feelings, right? We need to teach our kids that things are going to feel bad sometimes, and you need to feel your feelings, and, as a parent, I will sit here with you.

Are there any new programs for Chicagoans, either through city departments or through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, since the start of the pandemic?

Our organization has doubled in size because of the demand from Chicagoans and people in the state. If people want to get involved with NAMI, that’s incredibly helpful so we can continue to grow and create a system that actually works for people. I tell people: Get on these Listservs, check with your legislators if you want to see more appropriations for mental health. The reason I’m saying donate is that one of the tenets of wellness is compassion. One thing we have been telling people during COVID is: Make sure you’re doing something with compassion every day. Do something that’s creative. Mental health is not just about calling a help line; it’s about signing up for an art class or cooking or redecorating your house. There’s this misunderstanding that the only way that we can heal from mental health conditions is by seeking someone who has a PhD, but we are all healers if we can find that empathy in ourselves.

Many people have yet to fully reckon with the collective trauma of the past two years. What might the mental health landscape look like as the pandemic continues?

Symptoms of trauma often show up later than the event — often around six months post-trauma. We need to be thoughtful to ourselves and the people around us; our own disruptions may show up, and it may feel unrelated to the pandemic. That said, we’ve already passed that six-month period because this pandemic is so long. Now we have to make sure we are creating systems that can meet the capacity should every single person need any level of support. We need to keep pushing the narrative that mental health is just as critical as other chronic health conditions.