Pandemic causes spike in mental health emergencies in Pittsfield area

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PITTSFIELD — Since the start of April, local ambulance crews have responded to 20 opiate-related calls in Pittsfield — "about double what they were at this time last year," according to Brian Andrews, president of County Ambulance, one of two that companies that typically serve the city.

Alcohol-related incidents also have "skyrocketed" this month, he said, and reports of people with suicidal thoughts have spiked.

At the same time, the number of general 911 calls has dropped by more than 50 percent.

"When you see all those three categories going up and your overall emergencies going down, that seems to suggest that population is feeling the emotion of being quarantined," he said. "And the lack of support services."

As the coronavirus outbreak spread across the Berkshires in recent weeks, the associated isolation has been taking a toll on the community — and particularly those with existing mental health issues, according to clinicians.

While mental health emergencies have gone up, calls from people who want to start fresh with counseling have fallen "way, way down," said Candace Docimo, an addictions counselor at the Brien Center for mental health and substance abuse.

"Before COVID," she said, "people couldn't stop calling us."

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But when the outbreak began, she said the calls stopped coming.

"It's sad that people aren't reaching out," she said. "Because we are here. We are here for them."

Clinicians stand ready to help, but one-on-one and group therapy sessions are on hiatus while the virus courses through the county.

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Maro Hall, a Brien Center clinician working with dual diagnoses, said the pandemic provides a baseline of anxiety, and that exacerbates any existing disorders. Then, she said, the loneliness of the moment wreaks further havoc.

"We, as a species when there is a crisis, it's our instinct: gather," Hall said. "We've survived because we have been able to stay connected."

Change can be hard for people with substance use issues, Docimo said, and their treatment changed considerably in that most of it is now happening over-the-phone or via video conference. For many just starting their recovery process, they don't have enough minutes on their phones, and some don't have smartphones for video conferencing.

"It's very challenging and they're very isolated," Docimo said. "That's, I think, very tough for people in early recovery right now."

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Clinicians typically recommend a hearty regimen of one-on-one counseling and group therapy for people in recovery, she said. Isolation makes this difficult, but not impossible. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups in the Berkshires have both taken their daily group meetings online, she said, and one-on-one video conferences and telephone calls are readily available through Brien Center clinicians.

While the coronavirus makes it harder to do, Docimo said it remains vital for people in recovery to find creative ways to break the isolation.

"That's part of the whole disease — isolating and getting stuck with racing thoughts," Docimo said. "That's always fueled the drinking and the drugging."

And it's no coincidence that the city is simultaneously seeing a rise in alcohol issues and domestic violence, according to Cessa Cote, a clinician who has worked in the recovery community for decades. One fuels the other, she said.

"It's like throwing alcohol on a fire," she said. "It just explodes."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-464-2859.


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