The COVID-19 crisis has shone a bright, unflinching light on the flaws in the foundations of mental health care.

Before the pandemic hit, one in five Americans experienced a mental illness in a given year. Mental health care was already at crisis levels.

Nearly 500,000 Bexar County residents suffered from some level of mental health need, of which over 60,000 adults and 37,500 children were considered severe. Approximately 57% of those in need of services live in poverty and have limited access to care.

Unfortunately, it came as no surprise to those of us on the front lines of care that the hardest hit in our community were people of color and the poor. Economic segregation has held generations in cycles of poverty, affecting all aspects of their lives. Poverty and poor health, including mental health, far too often go hand in hand.

This was one of the reasons why JFS spearhead the creation of the Mobile Mental Wellness Collaborative, as it removes the barrier of transportation and brings much-needed mental health resources into an area of San Antonio that usually lacks these resources.

So how has COVID-19 impacted our community’s mental health?

A recent study conducted on behalf of American Psychological Association found that nearly 80% of American adults say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives.

Here is what JFS has seen in individuals.

Beginning in March, the requests for services at JFS from new clients rose to an unprecedented level: Where we typically might receive 20-25 requests per week, we suddenly received well over 100 new requests week after week.

We immediately began providing “telehealth” services via a HIPAA-compliant platform and have continued to offer this service since that time. We connected with other area organizations, such as JFS Houston, and began to cross-refer our virtual services in order to maximize specialized services and respond more efficiently to this huge demand for immediate mental health needs and services.

More clients than ever are showing signs of significant crisis, including those who are suicidal. Where we previously may have seen a handful of high risk clients per month in crisis, we now see 20-25 cases needing immediate crisis management support.

We have seen an increase in depression and anxiety borne of social isolation and fear. American Psychological Association reported that the younger generations are struggling with social isolation more than others.

Changes to school are negatively impacting Gen Z. Most Gen Z teens ages 13–17 (81%) report they have experienced negative impacts of pandemic-related school closures, and half (51%) say the pandemic makes planning for their future feel impossible. Like teens, 2 in 3 Gen Z adults in college (67%) say the pandemic makes planning for their future feel impossible. Further, most Gen Z adults in college (87%) report education is a significant source of stress in their lives.
Source: Stress in America 2020 Survey Signals a Growing National Mental Health Crisis

JFS clients are more frequently requesting counseling for anger management as this crisis extends. Blame and divisiveness seem to create a perfect storm for anger, depression and anxiety.

We also find that we are needing to connect patients with intensive outpatient services, as a therapy session once or twice per week is just not enough support for some of these high risk cases.

The struggles we are seeing have no age limit.

Across the board, we have seen significant increases in service requests. From seniors and their care-givers to school age children, no group is immune from crisis.

In one recent week, JFS provided trauma informed care, assessed for risk, designed safety plans, and ended up needing to hospitalize three different clients – ranging in age from a teen to a geriatric adult – to ensure their safety during this very difficult time.

However, the American Psychological Association report shows that Gen Z is showing higher signs of mental distress during the pandemic than other generations. Gen Z adults (age 18-23) are at a pivotal point in their lives during a time when the future is uncertain.

Gen Z adults report the highest stress level during the prior month, on average, at 6.1 out of 10. This is significantly higher than all other generations: 5.6 for millennials (ages 24-41), 5.2 for Gen X (ages 42-55), 4.0 for Boomers (56-74) and 3.3 for older adults (75+).

COVID-19 has made it clear

Mental health is not just about quality of life, it is about quantity of life. When we feel safe, when we are safe, we do better and live longer.

This is the time for all of us to take a hard look at ourselves, as individuals, as neighbors. We need to see how we can be better, how we can do better to help with these incredible mental health challenges.