DuPage County

Consequences of COVID. Need for mental health services on the rise

In a state of trauma, the ability to empathize shuts down. We enter survival mode, and adrenaline rushes the brain. It’s the “fight” element of “fight or flight” – and the world has been living in it for nearly two years.

Much like a bear attack, bodies stand rigid and an “every man for himself” attitude brings division, wondering when the next strike will come. This is the pandemic, said Azizi Marshall, founder and CEO of the Center for Creative Arts Therapy, and this is what it’s doing to your mental health.

“The pandemic is a global trauma,” said Marshall, who has been a mental health professional for more than 20 years. “This is a trauma response.”

Trauma, Marshall said, is some sort of disaster that provokes different responses in different people, but signs often manifest in similar ways. She likened the experience of living through the pandemic to a bear attack or surviving Hurricane Katrina. The difference? The world is about to enter its third year of uncertainty, grief, fear and division, as the pandemic rages on and questions about the virus continue to mount.

Trauma responses to the pandemic are manifesting in a number of ways, Marshall said. People may be experiencing inexplainable bursts of anger or sadness, loss of interest in socializing or hobbies that previously excited them, and even physical manifestations such as illness, she said.

“Because the pandemic ebbs and flows, we’re going back and forth emotionally as well,” Marshall said. “We will be in a mental health crisis when we come out of this … because once you relax you see what’s been happening and let that adrenaline go.”

It isn’t difficult to see the mental health crisis already beginning, though, as community service organizations work to improve available resources. The DuPage Foundation, for example, noticed a large increase in mental health nonprofits seeking funding, and the applications spoke to the greater need, said Dave McGowan, president and CEO of the foundation.

The foundation established a COVID-19 Response Fund at the start of the pandemic and raised nearly $1.8 million for area nonprofits, according to the foundation’s Impact Report on the fund. The fund provided 11 grants to mental health services, totaling $181,000 and making mental health services the third-largest recipient sector of the fund.

“The last application from 2021 showed the evolution of the pandemic from the need for emergency funds to mental health, and our applicants were letting us know mental health was a growing issue,” McGowan said.

Hearing the cry, the DuPage Foundation set up listening sessions with mental health organizations to assess community needs. The question became “how do we use this money and have the greatest impact,” said Barb Szczepaniak, vice president for programs at the DuPage Foundation.

Roundtable discussions set up by the foundation identified four key issues mental health organizations are facing in DuPage County: a lack of mental health professions, a language barrier that makes it difficult for non-English speakers to access resources, a lack of services among mental health organizations and a rising need for services among youth.

In assessing which projects to fund, Szczepaniak said some key considerations included how quickly a service could start up and how easily the county could replicate and expand the service if it proves to be successful. The DuPage Foundation collects data from grant recipients to determine what programs have been effective in a community, and Szczepaniak said the hope is that in the next six months, six organizations will employ different methods, following up with the foundation around June to help continue leading the directive.

With a special focus on youth mental health, the foundation is funding initiatives that will target at-risk groups such as students in low-income communities, immigrant and refugee populations, teen parents and more.

“What we learn will help us shape the use of future money for mental health,” she said. “The issue was so vast at first that it was overwhelming, but now we’re able to take this huge problem and hone into one area. It’s a fast process for a reason – it needs to be done.”

Throughout the pandemic, the foundation has seen a number of new donors, and McGowan said donations continue to come in strong. As the pandemic nears entering year three, McGowan said he hopes people continue to support the foundation as it pivots to its Community Needs Grant Program.

The Community Needs program has long been established at the foundation, but McGowan said the hope is to highlight that this fund is a way to annually support need in the community, wherever that need may be.

“Let’s not wait for another crisis. Let’s build now,” McGowan said. “This is even more important now because it will help the ongoing need we continue to see. Don’t wait for a pandemic. There are neighbors in crisis every day.”

Donating to a community organization provides mental health benefits to the donors themselves, Marshall said, reconnecting them to their community. Getting involved and finding a community – whether it be through donating time or money, getting involved in a club or starting your own – and connecting with others is a great way to keep one’s empathy intact, Marshall said.

Art groups such as those supported by Arts DuPage, for example, have been shown to help students do better in school and are connected to rising self-esteem levels and lowering anxiety and depression, said Deborah Venezia, director of Arts DuPage.

Art DuPage, an initiative of the DuPage Foundation, has been able to distribute $300,000 to 24 arts organizations to help keep them alive during the pandemic, Venezia said.

“Arts can pull us together in a time when we have been needing to isolate,” she said. “We’re facing this crisis we could never have been prepared for and are sucker punched by regular tragedies, but the arts can help you express that through creative energy that takes away the pain.”

Whatever anyone decides to do to take care of their mental health, Marshall said it is important to be honest with oneself and with others. Don’t sugarcoat concern for friends, family or children, she said, and make sure to really listen to others rather than trying to fix things for them.

Among all of the continued uncertainty, it is important to remember there are positives, Marshall said. People are finding communities and reexamining what is and is not healthy in their lives, she said. Marshall said mental health conversations are being heard, and living through a collective trauma like this is creating community.

“It’s almost like an ‘end-of-life’ awakening where we’re doing what we always wanted to do because we’re realizing life is show,” Marshall said. “There’s a shift to live a more purposeful life, and there will be a long-term cultural effect. We can see the pandemic as an opportunity.”