JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Rep. Angelika Kausche, who represents most of Johns Creek in the State House, hosted a virtual town hall with local and state mental health experts on May 6.
Kausche said she decided to devote a town hall to the topic of mental health and substance abuse because the global health crisis has been a traumatic experience for everyone.
“Let’s be honest, all of us have experienced some sort of anxiety with the sudden change,” she said. “Within weeks, our normal lives were turned upside down … My stress and anxiety level has definitely gone up significantly, and I can only imagine how it is for people who are suffering from clinical mental health issues.”
Joining Kausche in the discussion were Jeff Breedlove from the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse; Tom Connell, executive director of Pyramid Family Behavioral Healthcare; and Marti Vogt, chairman of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Georgia. Each discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their work.
Vogt said that everyone, regardless of a history of mental illness, should take care of their mental wellbeing, whether through calming hobbies, faith or virtually connecting with loved ones.
“The four common feelings associated with suicide really fit into what everybody is going through right now: feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, loneliness and worthlessness,” she said. “Mental health is everybody’s business. Be on the lookout for changes in loved ones’ behaviors, thinking, emotions, sleep and eating habits.”
The experts agreed that the pandemic has caused an unprecedented disruption to mental health and substance abuse treatment.
“We believe the opposite of addiction is connection,” Breedlove said. “We mean that literally: hugging, being in fellowship with people at events. That’s gone. It was taken away from people in long-term recovery and in early recovery.”
They all emphasized the importance of maintaining relationships with friends and family.
“Making connections is the number one factor in building resilience,” Vogt said. “Even though we can’t connect personally with people, we can connect through all these other vehicles of communication. I think that’s very important.”
Connell said those connection are not only important while we isolate our homes, but also as we transition to the next phase of the pandemic, whatever that looks like.
“I think compassion for others and maintaining a connection to others — whether it be friends, family, a spiritual practice — all of those things are going to be very important to help us propel forward,” he said.
Breedlove encouraged listeners to accept uncertainty and awkward adjustments as we try to return to a sense of normalcy.
“Part of recovery for me was surrendering to the reality of the disease, because I couldn’t beat it for a long time,” he said. “Now, I think we’re going to have to surrender to the reality that we may do the things that we used to do, but we may do them in a slightly different way, at least for a little bit.”
Even as businesses slowly reopen and social distancing restrictions lessen, the impact of COVID-19 psychologically is far from over, Vogt said.
“Trauma doesn’t always manifest itself right away,” Vogt said. “Sometimes it takes months, and sometimes decades. I think that we’re going to see more from this down the road.”
Anyone who is or knows someone struggling with a crisis or is at risk of suicide is urged to reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, is toll-free, confidential, and always open. The deaf or hard of hearing can contact the lifeline at 1-800-799-4889. People can also text 741741.
Possible warning signs vary from individual to individual but can include feeling hopeless, reckless behavior, increased use of drugs or alcohol, sleeping too much or too little, loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed and giving away prized possessions.