Mental health issues compounded by COVID-19 quarantine
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (AP) — For Northeast Florida residents with substance dependency, rocky relationships, mental health issues and other challenges, COVID-19 added another layer of stress that left unchecked, experts fear, could lead to worse outcomes.
For most of his life, Lavarian Ouma has been trapped.
Trapped by a family court system that placed him in foster homes worse than his own.
Trapped in a youth residence center that at once provided stability and support but also constraints.
And finally, on the verge of his 18th birthday that would liberate him from that system, trapped under quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Holed up with 10 other boys in one of several cottages on the St. Augustine Youth Services campus and with no visits by his mentors allowed during the pandemic, Ouma admits, “I felt pretty isolated.”
Now, at 18 and with a diploma from Pedro Menendez High School, nothing holds him back. Ouma plans to attend Tallahassee Community College this fall and to keep on the straight and narrow.
“I know I can do this, I just have to stay away from the temptations,” Ouma said in a June 9 interview with The Record.
The shutdown caused by the coronavirus has been stressful for everyone no matter what path in life they’re on.
But for those with substance dependency, rocky relationships, mental health issues and other challenges, the quarantine added another layer of stress that left unchecked, experts fear, could lead to worse outcomes.
Schuyler Siefker is the CEO for St. Augustine Youth Services, which provides housing and therapy for children who are at risk or removed from their homes for reasons of abuse and neglect.
Siefker said having the campus on lockdown for nearly three months was difficult for both staff and residents, all of whom are different ages, have different backgrounds and mental health challenges.
“It did spark some conflicts,” Ouma said.
Some children are in reunification with their biological families and during the shutdown those weekend visits were not permitted, adding to stress and loneliness. A lack of structure and a lot of free time also made the situation more difficult, Siefker said.
“But we got creative, and I am so proud of my staff,” Siefker said.
Patti Greenough is the CEO for EPIC Behavioral Healthcare which provides support for adults and families dealing with substance abuse, child welfare issues and mental health disorders.
With more people behind closed doors in March, April and May, Greenbough said, “There is a lack of connectivity, and that’s been first and foremost in our minds, is staying connected (with clients). It’s even harder when you’re dealing with kids.”
Compounding that social isolation is that group meetings and in-person therapy sessions were put on hold. With not all clients owning a computer or comfortable with expressing themselves in Zoom meetings, that means a lot of people suffering in silence, mental health experts say.
Like so many addicts, Zach Paull had to hit rock bottom before he could get help.
That “rock bottom” looks different for anyone battling drug or alcohol, and Paull is afraid that during the pandemic any number of factors could push those with a predisposition for abuse over the edge.
“Joblessness and people losing their identity tied up with those jobs; stress, boredom and uncertainty and there’s some sense of control, they think, in taking a drink or using (drugs),” Paull said in a recent interview with The Record. “It’s all just compounding the issues with substance abuse and mental health.
Four years clean now, Paull still fights daily for his own sobriety. He leads group meetings and does one-on-one therapy with clients in recovery, some of whom came to EPIC on their own free will and others from drug court or a hospital emergency room.
“That’s why EPIC and our services are so essential, to helping folks deal with life challenges, to cope, in more healthful ways,” Greenbough said. “We provide that outlet.”
The kind of stress produced by the quarantine can also be enough to triggers old habits.
Paull said it was hard to hear a client who had been in recovery with EPIC for more than six months relapsed and died over Memorial Day weekend.
Children of addicts can also bear the brunt of behaviors they see their parents falling into.
“Kids witness things and they’re cut off from resources they might have gotten at school,” Paull said.
Siefker and Greenbough believe as the economic recovery continues, they will see more cases and more acute cases come out of the woodwork.
“So there’s a huge awareness that our mental health services will be needed even more when things open back up,” said Greenbough.
Ouma is the first in his family to graduate from high school and aims to be the first college graduate, too.
At Tallahassee Community College, he plans to pursue a nursing degree
“I just want to help people,” Ouma said.
He used to be resentful of a mother who chose his siblings over him.
“I carried around a lot of anger with me, but I’m getting past it,” Ouma said.
All his life, he’s been jostled around from one child welfare placement to another, never truly feeling a part of the outside world.
That is changing now, too. He believes he is ready to go it alone and shoulder the responsibilities that come with that.
“I want to make my own decisions,” Ouma said, “and for them to be positive, obviously.”
The spelling of “Lavarian” has been corrected in this story. Corrects in byline area that the media outlet is The St. Augustine Record.