The Journey church in Wichita has a small congregation that includes a surprising number of mental health professionals, so perhaps it was preordained that the church would respond to the mental health crisis brought on by COVID.
The church is asking therapists to connect with patients at a reduced fee, which it will cover with a grant through the Kansas Beats the Virus campaign, a partnership between the Kansas Leadership Center and the state of Kansas.
Kansas Beats the Virus convened approximately 850 community meetings last month, and the campaign awarded approximately $800,000 in implementation grants for grassroots initiatives hatched in communities around the state.
Several Kansas Beats the Virus grantees are addressing pandemic-induced mental illness in unique ways, but as The Journey Church, and others, have found, the solution does not have to be complicated.
The Journey church, located on 9999 E. Harry St., is including its mental health referral cards in wellness kits placed next to its food donation box. The kits will also include general information about COVID prevention, coloring pages, hand sanitizer and reusable masks. The church said it would advertise the kits on its electronic sign and through social media.
StopSuicideICT is taking the same approach to overcome a hurdle to its typical operations.
The organization, based in Sedgewick County, normally advertises its services at big events and health fairs, and trains community members in person. None of that is advisable with COVID precautions.
Suicide prevention training shouldn’t be offered virtually because it is hard to detect warning signs if the subject matter is triggering to participants, said Nicole Fenoglio, president of the organization. In-person sessions allow trainers to see and respond to cues of distress.
“We haven’t been able to provide some of the trainings that we would normally provide,” said Fenoglio.
Instead, Fenoglio said they’re using the Kansas Beats the Virus grant to put together 1000 resource bags to distribute throughout the community.
They’ll hand out the bags at primary care practices and local businesses. The bags will include a coloring sheet, stress ball, a card with lists of coping skills suggestions like deep breathing, exercising, taking a walk, listening to a favorite song and just imagining their happy place.
“We want to get the information in their hands on how you cope with the day-to-day struggles,” Fenoglio said. “So many people right now are struggling who have never struggled before.”
In a survey conducted early last year, John Hopkins University researchers found that rates of serious psychological distress are much higher than before the pandemic. Fourteen percent of the general population reported experiencing distress in 2020, up from 4% in 2018.
Rates of psychological distress among young adults, ages 18 to 29, are particularly bad, with 29% reporting feeling distressed, according to Elizabeth Stuart, a professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who discussed these survey results during a panel hosted by the Association of Healthcare Journalists.
For those experiencing mental distress, call either SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK). Both are available 24/7, 365 days a year.
The distress among young adults comes as more of surprise, as researchers were concerned isolated older adults would bear the brunt of mental distress, “but in fact we are seeing across sources that it is the young adults feeling this particularly,” Stuart said during the panel.
“They were at a time in their life where they were about to head out into the world and really start their lives and things are looking very different for them than what they were expecting,” she added.
Many who most need mental health services can’t access it because they don’t have the funds. Along with those in poverty, Black people and Latinx are particularly stressed by the pandemic, according to the John Hopkins research.
Among the Kansas Beats the Virus grants circulating in the state, one is aimed at reducing stress within the Hispanic community of Lakin. The plan is to create an outdoor exercise club near the public library.
Since the pandemic started, the close-knit community has been isolated and depressed, according to Lakin resident Patricia Gutierrez, who started a Facebook group to help inform the Lakin Hispanic community and applied for the grant.
Organizers want to encourage family activities that can boost the immune system along with improve mental health. They expect to use grant funds to buy a projector and screen, a tent, weights, exercise balls, yoga mats, ropes, hand sanitizer and masks.
“The community was excited about this opportunity. We have been wanting to exercise in small groups or individually from home but could not afford the equipment, COVID-19 brought financial hardship in many of our families and Kansas Beats the Virus was a gift from heaven,” said Lakin resident Patricia Gutierrez, in an emailed message translated by Claudia Amaro.
The increased availability of telepsychiatry is another silver lining for rural residents who may not normally have access to therapy.
Kansas Beats the Virus grantees looking to maximize the use of telehealth for counseling include The Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County, which provides services for nearly 2,000 children annually and has six full-time therapists on staff, and Ashby House, a family emergency shelter in Salina.
The Child Advocacy Center’s “therapy in a box” aims to provide a variety of items, including fidget toys, bubbles, stickers and puppets to encourage creative play and enhance teletherapy. Ashby House envisions using the money to buy equipment and upgrade bandwidth to support the substance-use disorder program.
When it comes to helping with mental health, even small connections can make a difference according to Stuart of John Hopkins.
“The key thing is to reduce stigma, help people connect with resources and help people to learn how to reach out and help each other.”
Leah Shaffer is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.