As a single mother with multiple high-risk jobs, Dallas resident Amy Wynn has known many emotional challenges.
First her son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, devastating her and her husband. Then came her divorce and subsequent restructuring of the household. During that time, she went to therapy and learned tools for coping with her developing anxiety and depression.
She said she felt stronger, more capable. Almost unshakeable.
Then COVID-19 hit North Texas in March. Wynn lost all of her jobs and found herself spiraling again.
“I would feel like I was mentally able to deal with this, but I would get short of breath and my hands would go numb,” Wynn said.
While she’s been able to use some of the tools she learned in therapy a few years back, she still has days when she can barely get out of bed. Wynn wants to go back to therapy, but she is uninsured and can’t afford private counseling.
She’s not alone. Nearly half of North Texas adults who sheltered in place from March to June said the pandemic negatively affected their mental health, according to an upcoming report from the nonprofit Mental Health Connection. Among those most susceptible to COVID-19-related mental illness are older adults suffering cognitive decline or who experienced health stressors before the pandemic.
People of color are particularly hard-hit, according to Emily Spence, University of North Texas associate dean for community engagement and health equity. Spence, who authored the Mental Health Connection report, said minority clients – who are also most vulnerable to COVID-19 – are suffering psychologically because stresses of the pandemic are added to preexisting struggles with generational trauma, socioeconomic barriers and racism.
Starting in late March, nonprofits and state public health organizations published webpages listing resources for locals looking for COVID-related mental health care, but most of these resources don’t connect users to a counselor. Many ask users to take screening tests on their websites, instruct people to call the national disaster or suicide prevention hotlines, or just provide general self-care advice. While these resources can help, those looking for personalized, long-term assistance can easily become frustrated.
Wynn said she has spent weeks following online resource webpages and hasn’t found sustainable counseling options to fit her circumstances. She’s tried scheduling phone sessions with therapists but hasn’t heard back. She’s tried self-help apps and Google searches, contacted Metrocare Services in Dallas and the UT-Southwestern Psychiatry Clinic – no luck.
Meanwhile, her anxiety increases.
Since her 10-year-old son’s condition makes him high-risk, Wynn decided in March he should live with her parents in Fort Worth. Their moments together are bittersweet. She only gets to see him a few times a week, and even then, she can’t give him a hug. Their contact is limited to waving, chatting about dinosaurs through his bedroom window and socially distanced games of Battleship.
“There is some balance there, but it’s also overwhelming. I essentially am feeling like this virus has stolen motherhood from me,” she said.
Virginia Hoft, Mental Health Connection (MHC) executive director, said people may not know how to access services they need if this is their first time seeking therapy.
“Navigating mental health care is really tricky,” Hoft said. “When you look at free services versus if you have insurance, those situations are different. When you’re looking at public health care, there’s a lot of long waitlists. ”
This adds to the struggles facing first-time patients, who may already be experiencing feelings of self-doubt and even guilt for needing assistance. She said the stigma of needing counseling “plays a huge role” in such cases, as it makes people hesitant to find the help they need.
“Even though it’s 2020, there’s still a lot of stigma around that, as well as substance use,” she said.
Part of MHC’s outreach is their Recognize and Rise initiative, which seeks to raise awareness of issues like trauma and destigmatize public perception of mental health services. Other nonprofits Hoft recommended were My Health My Resources of Tarrant County — whose website includes phone numbers for its ICare emergency mental health crisis hotline.
Hoft also recommended The Women’s Center of Tarrant County and Alliance for Children, nonprofits that support victims of sexual/domestic abuse and provide counseling and case work. She said these resources are important right now because, due to school closures and job losses, survivors have less exposure to teachers or coworkers — watchdogs who often intervene in abuse cases.
Patients who can provide proof of hardship due to COVID-19, such as reduction in work hours or unemployment, can also seek counseling through Alliance Child and Family Solutions, a Fort Worth nonprofit offering free telehealth counseling services to all Texans until May 2021.
Fort Worth therapist Rane Wallace said he has seen a significant increase in cases of anxiety and depression in his practice. He said COVID-19 placed unique strains on families, such as fear of the unknown, concern about family members dying from the disease and stress over layoffs and furloughs.
Wallace, who also works for the Tarrant County Criminal Court Administration and the Tarrant County Judiciary, said the combined social stressors along with strict limits on social interaction led to increased demand for mental health services. But with scarce resources and few donations coming in, he said many mental health nonprofits have had to scale back operations or close down.
“The mental health care system has not been the most funded ... so [the pandemic] is really pushing it to its limits,” Wallace said.
Fort Worth resident LaShawnda Mayhorn said she started feeling the psychological effects of COVID-19 shortly before lockdowns began. Her aunt is a nurse who warned her family early on about the dangers of the virus. Mayhorn was laid off because of the economic shutdown. She is high-risk and lives with an older relative.
Mayhorn has since developed high blood pressure and severe anxiety, which she described as “feeling like a heart attack.”
She said she’s tried to find a counselor but didn’t find the right one. This is her first time seeking therapy and, if it’s affordable, she said she’d like to get regular therapy long-term.
“I know it’s not going to get better anytime soon,” Mayhorn said. “I need to talk it out. I know my anxiety.”
She copes through self-care, cooking for fun, talking to friends and disconnecting from social media.
One low-cost counseling option Wallace suggested is the Texas Wesleyan Community Counseling Center, which provides inexpensive — sometimes free — therapy from TWU master’s-level counseling students under faculty supervision. Fees are based on the client’s ability to pay.
The emotional and psychological challenges of a pandemic might seem insurmountable, but Spence said some long-term improvements can come from this experience. She said while rural communities traditionally had more access to online and telehealth therapy options, urban health care groups were resistant to offering such services. Post-COVID, she thinks that resistance will drop.
“I think now communities are realizing that electronic health communications are not as bad as you would think and that they work really well for a lot of people,” she said. “Some health systems are reporting that they have much lower no-show rates because it’s just easier for people to dial in on a phone or on a computer screen and connect with someone.”
Some clients will always prefer in-person sessions, but Spence said that shouldn’t stop people from considering all of their counseling options, particularly when social distancing.
“I think people should know there are still services there … but you may have to go about finding them in different ways,” she said. “It’s better to arrange for a communication via the telephone than it is to go without any care at all.”
At the end of the day, what matters most is feeling better, Wynn said, adding that people should take care of themselves like they’d care for a child — something called “self-parenting.”
“Be kind to yourself,” she said. “Take care of yourself like you would a child that you didn’t know. Not punishing yourself for your struggles is super important.”
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