The stresses and strains of the COVID-19 pandemic have been enough to test anyone’s well-being.
But the inescapable challenges – from social isolation and financial uncertainty to concerns about one’s health – can quickly overwhelm those struggling with substance use and mental health, said Leslie Stephen, a program manager with Henrico Area Mental Health & Developmental Services (MH/DS).
“There have just been compounding issues,” she said. “When there are so many issues to deal with, a person’s capacity to take on more is reduced.”
Since the pandemic started in mid-March, communities across the country have seen sharp increases in drug overdoses, suicides and requests for services. The trends have played out locally, with Henrico County already recording 41% more drug overdoses this year than in all of 2019.
“These numbers understate the full problem because many overdoses are not reported,” County Manager John A. Vithoulkas said in a recent letter to the Board of Supervisors on plans to open a detoxification and recovery center. “In recent years, there have been more deaths in Henrico from overdoses than from car accidents, homicides or suicides – and this trend will be true again in 2020.”
Similarly, the number of individuals prescreened for hospitalization because of mental health concerns was up 13% from July through September compared with the same period last year.
In addition, orders to place someone in emergency custody rose by 15%. One of every five individuals held on temporary detention orders was later admitted to state facilities, instead of treated locally. That’s higher than normal, in part because fewer beds are available due to the pandemic’s need for physical distancing.
MH/DS bolsters mental health, substance use services during COVID-19
MH/DS, which serves Henrico, New Kent and Charles City counties, has been working to ensure its services remain available and accessible during the pandemic while the county also develops an enhanced treatment model for substance use.
Staff have been conducting appointments mainly by phone or video, although in-person meetings are available if necessary. For more information, go to henrico.us/mhds or bouncebackhc.com. To access services, call (804) 727-8515.
The challenges from COVID-19 have been particularly acute for those who rely on regular, face-to-face support from clinicians and peers. Now, many of those sessions are held virtually.
“You think about folks in recovery, it really is that interaction that makes a difference,” MH/DS Executive Director Laura Totty said. “It’s that daily support that they get. The isolation necessitated by COVID-19 has been a real challenge.”
For many, the pressures and strains will only intensify as the state has imposed tighter measures following a surge in coronavirus cases ahead of the holiday season, which is often a difficult time for those with mental health and substance use challenges.
“I worry that many people may struggle when they’re unable to engage in activities that have given them comfort and support in the past,” Stephen said.
In September, the agency also began offering rapid access to medication-assisted treatment for individuals addicted to opioids. After their same-day access assessment, clients are connected with a prescriber for treatment with Suboxone, which curbs symptoms of withdrawal during detoxification.
MH/DS also is offering nine virtual trainings per week on REVIVE!, a free program on how to administer Narcan to save someone after an opioid overdose. Participants receive the medication by mail. To sign up, call (804) 727-8515.
To enhance its mental health services, MH/DS has partnered with the National Counseling Group to provide mobile support to individuals in crisis and avoid hospitalizations whenever possible.
Henrico advances new strategies to help those in recovery
Apart from its work in the pandemic, Henrico continues to look for new and better ways to help those struggling with substance use.
The county recently established a program to cover two weeks of housing costs for qualified individuals when they are admitted to a certified recovery home. So far, 13 recovery residences have applied for the program, which is known as CHIRP or Community-based Housing for Individuals in the Recovery Process.
“This gives the individual a chance to live in a safe, sober environment while they start to work on their recovery,” Totty said.
In addition, Henrico is advancing its plans to build a 24-hour detoxification and recovery center that would provide voluntary, medically supervised recovery services for adults.
The estimated 17,000-square-foot facility is planned on Nine Mile Road, near MH/DS’ East Center, and would have initially 12 to 16 beds. It would be licensed by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and managed by MH/DS with support from public and private partners.
The center was recommended by the Recovery Roundtable, a county work group that spent eight months looking at ways to reduce overdoses and strengthen recovery resources in the community.
“The Recovery Roundtable concluded the lack of access to detoxification is a significant gap and a barrier to recovery,” Vithoulkas said in his recent letter to the Board of Supervisors. “In fact, our jail has become the default provider of public detox in the County, having performed nearly 2,000 detoxes last year.”
Henrico has issued a request for proposals for consulting services as part of its planning for the detoxification and recovery facility. Funding for design and construction are expected to be considered as part of the county’s fiscal 2021-22 budget.
With the pandemic causing so much disruption, Stephen said it has been inspiring to see MH/DS staff confront each challenge and find innovative ways to provide the services the community desperately needs.
“It’s also amazing to see our clients so committed to working on their recovery,” she said. “Even with all that COVID-19 has thrown at them, they are determined to clear the hurdles that are in their way.”
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