Mental health experts expect to see surge in clients as pandemic wears on

Expert encourages families to think about alternative summer fun plans

While people may have put off seeking help for mental health issues during the state's stay-at-home order, one mental health expert believes that the demand for behavioral health services could skyrocket the longer the pandemic goes on.

Allison G. Johnsen, LCPC, BCC, manager, behavioral health at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital and Delnor Hospital, said that inquiry volume about outpatient programs for behavioral health has been down. But she expects that to change soon.

"We're expecting a large influx when this is over," she said. "Think about people with substance abuse problems. Some people who doing well in recovery then COVID tanked them and they fell off the wagon. We're also seeing an increase in couples therapy. This has been really hard on couples and there's a lot of additional stress on relationships now."

One thing that Johnsen said has been increasing is teens in crisis showing up in the emergency rooms.

"Teens have been starting to seek services in the last few weeks," she explained. "Teenagers' lives got shut down. They didn't get to go to prom, they want to be out with the friends, and the longer this goes on, the psychological effects will start to show up more."

Those negative effects could continue to intensify, especially with the summer almost here, and many festivals, camps and other activities already canceled. But Johnsen encourages everyone to think about alternatives to "normal" summer events, like going swimming in a lake, instead of the local pool.

She said one positive thing is the pandemic is that it happened in the spring, and not the dead of winter.

"[Think about] what can you do for fun that doesn’t involved large groups of people in the same space," she said. "Brainstorm with your family about what you can do- take road trips, teach somebody to go fishing, play in the stream at LeRoy Oakes, let kids get muddy, build a tree fort, go canoeing or kayaking, take bike trips, go camping in the backyard. Learn to play tennis or golf."

For those who had their heart set on a particular event this summer, Johnsen said that simply talking about disappointment can help people feel better, especially children.

"It’s validation, which is so helpful to people. Then they feel like somebody understands them," she said. "You can do an alternative celebration for the kids. If you can’t go on a trip - what can you do as an alternative? People need to have things to look forward to. People whose fun as been indoor related - like museums, going to the city for dinner - they might be more impacted. Plan day trips - what can you do that will change the scenery from the house and the yard? Having been cooped up, little things that may not have satisfied you in the past will be enough now. We can be more appreciative of things we would normally take for granted."

One thing people shouldn't do, Johnsen said, is to wait to take care of themselves. She said that depression and anxiety can build up over time, leading to more mental, and even physical, health problems.

"I encourage people to reach out - even if it's for just a few sessions - to learn about thought processes," she said. "A lot of counseling is about teaching people how to help themselves. Our bodies can only take so much stress before we show physical symptoms. If people are under a lot of stress, we can teach people how to inoculate from it. Stress raises cortisol and adrenaline levels, and eventually, our bodies can’t sustain that so they break down. This crisis is stressing us."

Johnsen recommends "the basic stuff," like getting enough sleep, exercising and healthy eating to help improve mental and physical health during the pandemic. She also said that people should "check in" with themselves on a daily basis.

"Ask yourself 'how am I doing today?'," she explained. "People need to pay attention to their bodies. Sleep and exercise are two of the most important things people can do to mitigate stress, depression and anxiety. Keeping our thoughts in the present can help manage uncertainty - it's a practice that people can get better at if they tend to run toward the past or look to the future with their thought patterns. People need to think about what's in their control and what they can do about it, and keep their energy there."