Mental health part of peninsula pandemic response

School district concerns over adequate personal protective equipment and a behavioral health campaign focused on community mental health during the pandemic were discussed during the monthly meeting of the Clallam County Board of Health.

While Clallam County and the North Olympic Peninsula continue to fare better than other communities around the state in keeping community spread low, County Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank said on Oct. 20 the health department would be spending more time dealing with the mental health implications of the pandemic.

“After any disaster, whether it be COVID-19, a hurricane, an earthquake, you will always enter a period of disillusionment when you will see an increase in poor behavioral outcomes — overdoses, suicides, violence,” she said.

“And that’s really kind of where we are right now. We are in the disillusionment part of the behavioral-health response toward a disaster.”

Drug overdoses have risen during the pandemic and deaths by suicide are near the numbers of previous years, Unthank said.

“In the clinical realm, there’s an increase in the needs for behavioral-health support, certainly in the syringe exchange,” she said. “We are seeing rises in overdoses in the community, seeing folks who relapsed, those who used to be in recovery and are now overdosing because they have had a period of sobriety.

“Suicide Prevention Task Force met last week, crisis line has seen a surge in calls, seeing more outreach and more support,” she added.

“Interestingly, we haven’t seen a very significant rise in deaths by suicide in our community, which is hopeful. A small increase compared to last year, but that puts us at similar rates to years past.”

Unthank said continued vigilance in keeping COVID-19 infections down would help the process.

“If we can do that, we can start to come out of the behavioral-health implications of this virus sooner rather than later,” Unthank said.

“We also want to message a little to folks about importance of taking care of themselves and their communities and encourage folks not to just isolate at home, but decide on a quarantine-buddy household that you will interact with during the fall and winter months,” she added.

“This will go a long way to improve your mental health as you do need people in your life. It just needs to be a small group of people.”

Unthank said those who have underlying mental health disorders or addiction disorders are likely to get worse.

“That is expected during a time of national disaster,” she said.

“Encourage folks to reach out. Call your support system, even if you can’t see them. Now is an important time to come together and take care of each other.”

The crisis line is available at 1-888-910-0416.

“Someone will be there to talk to you,” Unthank said.

Schools discussion

Unthank said the reintroduction of students to Clallam County classrooms has gone well thus far.

“We have been able to reintroduce some degree of in-person learning throughout the county,” Unthank said, adding that the amount of in-person learning in any district at this point is primarily dependent on district resources, district complexity and district needs.

“From a health department perspective, all of our districts should be in some degree of in-person learning with intensive safety protocols that we go over quite a lot with superintendents and nursing staff,” Unthank said.

“We recommend adding additional grades as we move forward as long as there is not transmission in the schools and we don’t see a massive spike in infections in the community.

“So far it is has really gone quite well. The children are doing fantastic.”

School superintendents, however, are expressing concerns about dwindling funding for safety equipment for staff and students.

“On the call [Tuesday] morning with the superintendents, pretty much universal fears that they don’t have enough money in the future to buy PPE for their staff primarily and for cloth masks for students,” Unthank said.

“They have enough to get through for now, but are very worried about PPE going forward.

“If ever a school were running out, we would get them supplied, and most schools probably have about a two- to three-month supply left, but it’s certainly a concern (without additional federal funding).”

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