Local government mental health departments and faith-based organizations are working to boost their services to combat the mounting mental health challenges that hit the nation due to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the CDC during June, “Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use and elevated suicidal ideation.”

Eleven percent who were surveyed by the CDC in the month of June “seriously considered suicide.” In the same survey, 31 percent said that they suffered from “anxiety/depression symptoms,” due to the pandemic.

Doctors from the John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Calif. have seen an upsurge in deaths by suicide and injuries by attempted suicide, according to a Bay Area news station.

The hospital reported 13 self-inflicted injuries and five deaths by suicide between March and May of this year. In 2019 those numbers were eight injuries and two deaths over the same period.

Dr. Mike deBoisblanc, the head of trauma at John Muir, told KGO-television, “Personally, I think its time,” to end the shelter-in-place order. “I think, originally, this [shelter-in-place order] was put in place to flatten the curve and to make sure hospitals have the resources to take care of COVID patients. We have the current resources to do that and our other community health is suffering.”

Kacey Hansen, who has worked as a trauma nurse at John Muir for 33 years, said she was worried because not only are they seeing more suicide attempts but they also are not able to save as many patients as usual.

Hansen said, “I have never seen so much intentional injury.”

County resources

The county of San Bernardino’s Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) is treating over 45,000 clients, according to DBH Director Veronica Kelley.

Kelley said that the DBH has not stopped any of its services, but has increased them.

While DBH works with the Medicaid/Medical population, it also works with the general population and with student assistance programs in the city and county school districts in San Bernardino.

Kelley says the programs teach the teachers and the staff of those districts on how to identify the signs and symptoms of depression and suicide.

The training involves mental first aid training for staff and youth, which shows youth how to interact with one another. Since the pandemic began there has been a 16 percent increase for youth services at DBH.

The month of September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in San Bernardino County, while nationwide it is National Recovery Month.

Kelley said that the county had a “pretty robust” mental health program before the coronavirus pandemic and that has “helped normalize talking about suicide.”

“Suicide Prevention Awareness Month really is about starting the conversation,” she said. “There is that myth that if you talk about suicide people will do it and it’s not true. If we don’t talk about suicide people will do it.”

Kelly said that DBH has programs to address suicide including the “Safetalk” program, which teaches people/lay professionals how to intervene if someone is thinking about committing suicide. There is also the “Assist” program that helps assist people who feel like hurting themselves.

She said a great resource for people is the website: bethe1to.com/, which provides links to national organizations and other resources for emotional well-being.

Kelley said, “It’s important, if you, think that someone you know or you love might be contemplating suicide, that you start by asking them that question.”

She says the way not to ask is, “Your not thinking of doing something stupid are you?” or “You're not thinking about hurting yourself are you?” She said the question needs to be “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”

Kelley said “The question is straight to the point, there is no room there, no grey area and then you listen for the answer.”

“If they say, ‘Yes,’ then you can ask a question, the question could bem, ‘Why?’ versus, ‘You have so much to live for, don’t be stupid.’” She said, “That’s not going to help the conversation, which is what we're wanting. When they are telling you why, that also lets them know that you are not judging them, that you are open, maybe you would support them [if] what they are saying is truth, and then you listen.”

After listening to them, you help them find appropriate resources, depending on the severity of the situation.

Kelley said, “You stay with them, you don’t leave someone who just told you they want to kill themselves.”

She said if you need to, call a friend to stay with the person, and then tell that person that the friend will be coming to help and watch over them.

Kelley said that people who had taken mental health training with DBH had a 92 percent increase in knowledge and resources to help someone who is suicidal. Nine-seven percent of people had a willingness to help someone who was suicidal. Eighty percent of people obtained knowledge on how to help someone who wanted to hurt themselves. Eighty-eight percent were found to have researched how to cope with themselves.

Kelley said that DBH has had to change the way it does things, but Kelley suspects when they do get the updated training data these numbers will be much higher. Kelley said that lack of technology to provide online services, such as mental counseling, is “a real issue.”

“There are many parts of the county that don’t even have satellite coverage.”

She said, “It was a little bit different [due to the pandemic], we still have done groups. Some of our providers are doing their therapy groups outdoors where they can have it be private.”

Those with a mental illness who are paranoid about having a Zoom or WebEx video counseling are invited to go in for in-person counseling.

DBH also provides 40 hours of crisis intervention training for first responders and has a unit dedicated to helping law enforcement in difficult situations.

Kelley warns that kids are getting information about COVID-19 from the same sources their parents are: social media, friends and the news.

“[Kids] are watching us to see how we are reacting to it. They are taking their cues from us, so if we are angry, they are going to be angry, if we are frustrated, they are going to be frustrated. So, it’s really important that we remain as calm as possible when we talk to our kids, so we can get through this and move on to getting back to normal,” Kelley said. “The longer this goes on, obviously, the more impact it’s going to have. It’s been impacting all of us.”

Kelley also said, “The idea is that screen time is now the way our kids are going to have to do school for a while, but they need not be on the screen all the time.”

She said the blue light from phones, computers and televisions tricks brains into thinking it’s daylight, interfering with children’s ability to sleep.

Kelley said, “Once the kid is done with school they need to get out.”

She said something as simple as playing an board game, playing outside or calling a friend the old-fashioned way can have a positive impact.

DBH resources are at wp.sbcounty.gov/dbh/covid-19-resource-for-community-contract-providers-and-staff/.

Faith-based support

Joshua Blevins has been Calvary Chapel of Chino Hills’ assistant pastor under Lead Pastor Jack Hibbs for just over a year. He has been attending Chino Hills since he was 14 years old.

Chino Hills followed President Donald Trump’s order in March to shut down churches for 15 days and Trump's extension of another 15 days to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Blevins said that a local firefighter told that him that calls regarding depression and suicides at the time had risen between 60 to 70 percent since the start of the pandemic.

Blevins said that soon after, Hibbs consulted with the Bible, prayer and fasting and he decided to reopen the church.

At first, Hibbs followed the state guidelines of the time, only filling 25 percent of the sanctuary. To abide by social distancing guidelines they opened the church's gym and put up a projector screen on their back lawn. The response of people who wanted to come to church was incredible. For a time they had to use a ticket system and add another service at 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoons. The church still follows the guidelines by providing different worship experiences. If people want to social-distance, they can attend in the gym or out on the back lawn. The main sanctuary is for those who want some kind of normal in their lives.

Blevins said, in regards to mental health, “I think one of the biggest mistakes that the world has made, and that people make, is they separate mental health from any sort of spiritual reality, and if there was some study that could be done on it, I think the greatest moments of healing, of restoration, happens in peoples lives, whether it's from addiction or from PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder], mostly when that mental stress is connected to the reality that they are a spiritual being in need of ministry and a touch in truth from God.”

Blevins said that’s what he believes has happened at Chino Hills.

Chino Hills’ children’s ministry is also there to support for families of all ages. On Sunday, Aug. 23, Blevins was filling in for High School Pastor Shadrach Means who was on vacation. Blevins’ sermon addressed the issues of mental health, which included suicide, drugs and alcohol. He told the kids to “find purpose in something greater than yourself.” He also encouraged kids to have their own peer groups who support each other in their relationship with Christ and to hold each other accountable.

The high school group holds two services on Sundays and has had over 400 kids in combined attendence. Some kids are attending Chino Hills with their families because the church they usually attend is still shut down.

Taylor, age 15, said regarding the state’s guidelines for churches, “It’s not okay to shut churches as spiritual and emotional guidance are not given to at-risk youth by their families or friends.”

She said kids who attend the high school group can get advice on life issues from their own peers and advice from older church leaders in the church. She also said that, in a time such as this, Christians are called on to be together.

Ben, age 17, said it “feels real good” to be back at church and attending every Sunday even if it’s for a short time.

He said, it “feels like the previous normal before the pandemic.”

He also prefers an in-person interaction compared to a digital interaction that some kids are doing because of the pandemic. Ben is homeschooled and a senior in high school; he is also in the process of obtaining his associate’s degree in general education at one of the local community colleges.

Chino Hills also provides a 24/7 biblical guidance hotline for families and kids who might be having issues due to the pandemic.

The church also provides a park day for kids in the area so parents and kids don’t feel so isolated at home.

A pen-pal program was set up for kids to write letters of encouragement to each other around the church. Blevins said the kids love the program and are excited when a letter with their name on it shows up in their mailbox.

The church provides rental assistance for seniors in the Chino and Chino Hills area along with working with a local food bank to help families in need of food.

In Highland, St. Adelaide Catholic Church is holding Mass outdoors. The Masses take place on Saturdays at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. and on Sunday mornings at 6:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Pastoral Coordinator Fernando Solorio said, “They are running everything as normal as possible while following state and county guidelines.”

St. Adelaide invested in canopies and an upgraded outdoor sound system for the Masses.

Solorio said they reopened because “We have a lot of parishioners who the need to participate in Eucharist [communion] as it helps them in their spiritual relationships.”

For those who are elderly or have an underlying health condition St. Adelaide also live streams its Masses via Facebook and Youtube.

They also offer a food bank to 40 families in need every Thursday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Message of hope

Blevins has a message for local pastors in Highland who were on the fence about opening up their churches, he said, “It’s not far; come one time and experience what God is doing here. Come talk to our pastors, come if you have questions or if you’re confused.”

Blevins said he sat down with four pastors last month who have told him, “I don’t know what to do. I see what you are guys are doing, give me some counsel, give me some advice on how I can help people in my community.”

Secondly, Blevins said that churches have to “Battle the culture of fear, realize that while there are a lot of people [who are] afraid, there are also a lot of people searching who will come,” and “who are looking for answers and the church needs to be there to help reach those people because our allegiance, of course, is first to God and his kingdom and his gospel and reach people with that.”

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