North Country Healthcare’s (NCHC) Integrated Director of Behavioral Health, Jonathan Benitez, has been a licensed counselor for about 16 years. He took the role two and a half years ago, just before the pandemic hit.
“It changed everything, changed the game in many ways,” he said.
He says he’s seen an increase in Flagstaff’s baseline stress level.
“Most of the time Flagstaff has an anxiety level of three, maybe four. [on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the worst], very normal levels. … Under the pandemic, community mental health symptoms have increased to a higher baseline. Before it was tolerable, but now we are tolerating a new higher level of anxiety, depression, mental health issues, because of the pandemic,” he said.
The level will go down “at some point,” Benitez said. “But it takes time, it takes healing. It takes trust, patience, all those things that we don’t do well as human beings.
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The main effect of the pandemic on mental health, he said, was the isolation of the early days.
“Isolation caused fear, it caused overthinking, anxiety, depression…it caused a lot of different things. Yes, we adapted and yes, we bought a lot of things in line, but we are social animals by nature,” he said. “We need interaction with others, we need vitamin D from the sun, and that has affected mental health.”
Benitez also mentioned some of the positive effects he’s seen COVID have on behavioral healthcare, including his management style and expanding access, among others.
Telemedicine is one example – he said he had seen patients in person for the first 14 years of his practice and was “very averse” to virtual sessions at first.
“Now that I’ve done maybe 800, I would say you can help people over the phone, you can also help people over video. There’s this stigma of therapy that is lying on a couch …and it’s not like that anymore. It’s short term, it’s evidence-based, we really understood it in the profession. It was really hard to adapt, but we got it done, not just as behavioral health but as an organization,” he said.
Another example is that it has reduced the stigma around mental health, as isolation puts things into perspective. He said he was seeing more Spanish-speaking patients, especially men between the ages of 35 and 55.
“The pandemic has put mental health in the spotlight, which has brought down the stigma and people are asking for help,” he said. “…They come in with their anxieties, their depressions, their grief, their relationship issues, their substance use disorders. It’s beautiful. And then you get the rapport and you build it in the community.
The mental health effects that Benitez observed in children are similar to those in the community as a whole.
“It’s as if this phenomenon happened, from a sociological point of view,” he said. “Kids who were doing well in school now weren’t doing well and kids who weren’t doing well in school now are doing well because they’re online.”
That’s according to CDC data, released Thursday, on youth mental health from January to June 2021: More than a third of high school students reported experiences of poor mental health during the pandemic in its survey of adolescent behaviors and experiences.
In the past year, 44.2% of students surveyed reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year, 19.9% said they had seriously considered suicide, and 9% had attempted to suicide.
The pandemic has also increased pressure on families as a whole, he said, between remote work and school, risk of COVID, loss of care options.
“Kids get it,” he said. “…COVID has very, very affected children, but it has also affected families and has affected the community, adults, etc.”
The difference is that children are more resilient, he said, which gives him hope, much like their growing advocacy he has seen throughout the pandemic.
“They don’t just follow society’s norms, they’re going to challenge it. They will change it for positive things,” he said, giving the example of the LGBTQIA+ community. “They are more difficult than ever, because these young people have a lot of hope. I feel like they are going to be a generational change in our country.
“At North Country, those of us who are here, we make it work at high quality,” Benitez said of his team’s response to the mental health needs raised by the pandemic.
NCHC has nine clinicians and one paraprofessional support person on its team. Many people retired early or went into private practice during the pandemic, he said.
“We don’t just have vendors here, we have a lot of vendor-leaders…they’re not only good at medicine, but lead projects and people,” he said. “The NCHC, as a team, has a lot of those.”
He mentioned a few areas of behavioral health that the NCHC is trying to address alongside its more typical patient load, primarily COVID “long haul” and grief.
The pandemic has meant a lot of loss for a lot of people, he said of the second element. This includes a variety of types of loss, from loved ones to friendships to careers.
In addition to its symptoms, a long COVID can also mean major life changes.
“I’ve seen incredible things with long-haul,” he said. “There’s not a lot of science and research behind it yet. It’s one of those things that’s brand new, and the treatment is still ongoing, but we’re trying to attack it from an anxiety perspective, from a depression perspective, from a change perspective. of life. If you’re a critical care nurse, and now you have COVID and can’t breathe, you can’t be a critical care nurse. It’s going to be a life change that we need to discuss.
They are responding to this primarily by focusing on patients as much as possible: “Access to care has been my main priority to close these gaps in the pandemic,” he said.
“We charge [our counselors] with patients. … We’re limiting all these other administrative distractions, because every day I want to see patients, patients, patients, patients, because that’s what we’re here for, is to serve those patients.
To learn more about NCHC Behavioral Health Services, visit northcountryhealthcare.org/services/behavioral-health. A list of COVID-related mental health resources in Coconino County is available at coconino.az.gov/2333/Mental-Health-and-Well-Being-Resources.