Mental health, substance abuse services expand due to the COVID-19 pandemic

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Hsi-Min Chan/Staff
As the COVID-19 pandemic saw an increased demand for wellness resources, mental health facilities throughout the city of Berkeley expanded their services.

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With an increasing number of people seeking mental health support throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, University Health Services and various other mental health facilities in the city of Berkeley have expanded their services to accommodate more clients. 

Many individuals have turned to alcohol and other substances to cope with the additional stress and deprivation brought on with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Annie Wright, a licensed psychotherapist and the founder and owner of trauma-informed therapy center Evergreen Counseling. Therapy, counseling, support groups and lifestyle changes can help students struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues exacerbated by the pandemic. 

“These times continue to be challenging to navigate,” said UHS spokesperson Tami Cate in an email. “The impacts of multiple trauma and loss have many students experiencing symptoms of increased stress and anxiety, reduced motivation, changes in social and daily behaviors.” 

For students, in particular, the pandemic has posed specific challenges, Wright noted. She stated that the pandemic has been “especially hard” for teenagers and college students whose developmental task is to be socializing with their peers. 

Wright added that forcing college students into isolation took away activities, including socializing with friends, classmates and club members, which normally serve to alleviate the stress and strain inherent in college life. One of the most common coping mechanisms Wright has seen in practice is the use and abuse of substances by students. 

According to Cate, all students have access to mental health services regardless of insurance at UHS. The services offered at UHS include informal drop-in consultations through the Let’s Talk program, individual and couples counseling, peer-to-peer counseling, virtual mental health workshops and psychiatric services. 

UHS also offers an “Alcohol and Other Drug Harm Reduction Group” and highlights community-based support groups around campus, Cate added. 

In order to account for the uptick in students seeking mental health support, UHS has added more self-help resources in the form of books, podcasts and videos, Cate noted. UHS has also changed its counseling model to offer same-day appointments and eliminated lengthy questionnaires.

For students seeking services outside of campus, Evergreen Counseling, located three blocks away from campus, is one of the numerous mental health centers available. 

Evergreen Counseling has also experienced a “huge surge” in students seeking mental health support, with some expressly pointing to substance abuse support as a therapy goal, according to Wright.

Wright noted that Evergreen Counseling has doubled in size since the beginning of the pandemic, bringing in greater numbers of highly skilled clinicians each quarter. The service has also expanded its hours to be open every day of the week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Wright also detailed a list of lifestyle changes critical to improving mental health. In addition to getting enough sleep and limiting time on social media, Wright recommended seeking out necessary medication, building nourishing relationships and spending time in nature. She also advocated for creating a personal mental health team

You have medical supports, right? A doctor and an OBGYN? A legal and financial team like a lawyer and CPA? Then I suggest you model your mental health care in the same proactive way,” Wright said in an email. “Many of us need someone who is not our significant other/friend/parent to talk to about life’s toughest stuff. Get your team in place so you can count on them for that.” 

She added that Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups following the AA model are the most “accessible” in terms of cost, accessibility and regular support for those combating substance abuse. Students are able to join AA meetings virtually or in person at almost any hour every day, according to Wright. 

While expressing the importance of maintaining good physical health, Wright also emphasized the equal importance of caring for your mental health. 

“Recognize and realize that mental health is every single bit as important as physical health,” Wright said in the email. “In assigning mental health the importance it deserves, it can make it far easier and more motivating to seek out and build supports to manage your own mental health.”

Serene Chang is a deputy news editor. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @_serenechang.