FORT ATKINSON — There’s hardly a person on this globe whose well-being hasn’t been affected by the ongoing pandemic. People of all ages, all nationalities, have seen their routines, rituals and often their livelihoods, ripped away.
Even an elderly nursing home resident, lost in the fog of Alzheimer’s, felt the impact as once affectionate caregivers donned bewildering masks and kept their distance.
National statistics show that anxiety and depression are way up for the past year, said Alicia Leslie, behavioral health manager for Fort HealthCare, who noted that trend also is reflected in the local area.
Mental health professionals expect this trend to continue in the coming months and years as people deal with the fallout of living through a pandemic.
“The amount of anxiety and depression we are seeing now is profound,” Leslie said.
Mental health concerns already were common, she said, and the changes the pandemic wrought severely impacted those who already were struggling, while shaking up people who previously had been doing fine.
“I think the pandemic has increased awareness in this area,” Leslie said. “Mental health is real, and it’s not something that just impacts other people. We all could be one traumatic experience away from trouble.”
On the positive side, it is treatable, and there are treatment advances all of the time.
Leslie said Fort HealthCare already had robust behavioral health services before the pandemic, and the hospital has worked to bolster those services during this time of great need.
“We are seeing increased levels of anxiety and depression, feelings of hopeless, isolation and a lack of connection,” she said. “People who were experimenting with substance use before the pandemic are having an even harder time.”
Leslie said that a combination of adverse experiences, isolation, boredom and the cessation of the traditional activities that once filled people’s lives have led many to cope in unhealthy ways.
With many people still working from home or trying to juggle a job, and children temporarily doing virtual school, she said some have found it impossible to “unplug.”
“We see a lot of burnout and stress,” Leslie said. “When your home is your work, you feel like you’re never able to leave your work station.”
While the greater Fort Atkinson area has not seen a big jump in suicides, she said passive suicidal ideation is up.
“There’s a sense of desperation, of hopelessness, that things aren’t going to get better,” Leslie said.
One-eighth of Fort HealthCare’s emergency room visits, she noted, are related to mental health concerns.
While the availability of vaccines has eased the situation for some, the continued high level of COVID-19 transmission means that many of the big milestones of people’s lives still are missing — from a traditional high school prom to spring break trips to family celebrations.
Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health concerns locals are reporting right now, Leslie said, but she noted the pandemic also has exacerbated people’s obsessions and compulsions, often centered around cleaning and decontamination in an attempt to avoid becoming infected with the coronavirus.
“This is affecting kids too,” she said. “People come to us saying ‘We never really thought that our kid would be affected in this way.’”
Middle and high school students are among the most affected by the changes the pandemic wrought, as sports, performances, competitions and other normal activities were wiped off the school calendars and their lives were wrenched by repeated quarantines and transitions to virtual school.
These disruptions also have sent the highest-risk children home to troubled families and unsafe conditions.
“Our youth are struggling the most,” Leslie said. “They have been affected disproportionately.”
She cited a report called “The Voices of Wisconsin Students” which gathered testimony from 160 middle- and high-schoolers from 68 communities in 38 of the state’s counties.
The teens reported increases in anxiety and depression, the worsening of existing mental health conditions, and increased instances of substance abuse, be it drugs, alcohol or vaping.
Despite the greater need, a lot of teens still are hesitant to reach out, so their needs are going unmet, Leslie said.
In response to increased need, mental health professionals are working with schools and the community to raise awareness and get the word out about all of the resources that are available to help.
The behavioral health manager cited a current report entitled “the State of Mental Health in America” (2021), which relayed that 19% of adults have experienced mental illness in the last year.
“That’s up by 1.5 million people from the previous year’s data set,” Leslie said.
Among youth, 9.7% struggle with severe, major depression, she noted.
“Among these, only 27% receive consistent care, and one-third of that high-risk group are going without treatment entirely,” Leslie said.
Engaging the schools in the fight to make sure students get the mental health help they need is one way to mitigate the problem, she said.
However, it’s been a challenge to make mental health a priority, Leslie said, when schools have limited budgets and already are tasked with so many responsibilities, the top one being academics.
Fort HealthCare is working to bridge the gap by providing mental health services right in the schools. Assisted, in part, by grant funding, the hospital currently has a therapist working within the Fort Atkinson and Whitewater schools, and also is working closely with the Cambridge schools.
The Jefferson schools recently hired an in-house professional to serve the same purpose, Leslie said.
The in-school programs are getting good reviews from both schools and participants, she said, and the hospital has seen its contracts increase every year.
In the community as a whole, Fort HealthCare is part of a coalition of professionals and advocates working to raise awareness and to eliminate the stigma “mental illness” has long held.
“There’s been this perception that mental health doesn’t affect ‘us,’” Leslie said. “It’s just those people over there, the disadvantaged and people who aren’t taking care of themselves.
“But this doesn’t affect just a small segment of the population,” she added. “We are all people and it affects all of us — if not directly, then indirectly.”
Leslie noted that worldwide, $1 trillion in lost productivity per year can be traced back to mental health issues.
It doesn’t need to be that way, though, she said. If we consider this part of the human experience — a normal thing that can be treated — and make that treatment accessible, a lot of adverse outcomes can be avoided.
People may visit the Fort Atkinson Club’s website for more information.