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’Like an earthquake with many aftershocks,’ Coping with mental health and substance abuse issues during pandemic

  • Dartmouth-Hitchcock Director of Anxiety Disorders Service Robert Brady, Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine Professor of Psychiatry Dr. William Torrey, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Media Relations Manager Audra Burns and NAMI New Hampshire Executive Director Ken Norton talk about how to get treatment for mental health and substance misuse issues during the pandemic during Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health’s Wednesday’s mental health web series “Heads Up: Coping Through COVID-19.” Courtesy photo—

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 5/26/2020 9:11:35 AM

The COVID-19 pandemic is difficult for everyone but is particularly hard for people that live with a mental illness or have trouble with substances, William Torrey, MD, Professor of Psychiatry at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine, said during Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health’s latest “Heads Up: Coping Through COVID-19” web series.

During a recent installment, which live-streams on Facebook Wednesdays at noon and is later posted on YouTube, local experts focused on the resources available to people facing mental health illnesses and substance use problems.

“About half of Americans will have a psychiatric illness or a substance use disorder at some point in their lives. So these are extremely common difficulties,” he said.

Torrey likened the pandemic to an earthquake, with many aftershocks, that have the potential to worsen these conditions as well as bring out conditions that may not have been noticeable under pre-pandemic amounts of stress.

“It’s kind of like an earthquake in that the ground has suddenly moved beneath our feet. And also like an earthquake, the experience has been traumatic for many of us,” Torrey said. “As my wife tells me, ‘We’re all in the same storm, but we’re in different boats,’ and by that I think she means that people have different stressors from the same storm. ... Some people are extremely socially isolated without their usual support. Some people have very good reasons to be worried about their own health or they have loved ones who are at great risk. And some people have lost family members to COVID-19 already. And many have severe financial hardship. Almost everyone has great disruptions in their lives and the future just is not clear.”

The good news is that these conditions are treatable and resources have been made widely available during this pandemic with care quickly shifting to teleservices and outpatient care.

“It’s very important to seek out care from others,” Torrey said. “So if you are struggling I urge you to seek out help from the Doorways, from community mental health centers and other mental health and substance abuse disorders service providers. We are all up and running and dedicated to meeting people’s health care needs.”

Ken Norton, Executive Director of NAMI New Hampshire, said it’s important for people to know how these services have expanded during the pandemic.

“I just want to note that alcohol continues to be the biggest challenge that we face in New Hampshire relative to substance misuse and it’s very disconcerting to see that alcohol sales during March and April were up 43 percent in our state,” Norton said. “And so people really need to be concerned about overuse of alcohol when they’re stuck at home.”

Norton added AA meetings are available online. He also said talking to other people that have been through similar painful situations can be helpful during a crisis and said people can find resources online at NAMINH.org.

He also suggested people check in on friends and family members that were not doing that well before the pandemic.

Robert Brady, PhD, Director of Anxiety Disorders Service at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, said feeling anxiety and stress during the pandemic is normal. The pandemic, however, may have brought anxiety disorders to the surface, disorders that may have been manageable before but now require treatment. However, everyone is feeling anxiety right now and for most, it will subside.

“Most folks will not go on to develop an anxiety disorder simply as a result of the pandemic. So I would encourage a lot of our listeners to accept the anxiety as an understandable and acceptable response,” Brady said.

He added he would encourage all people right now to work on lowering their stress levels.

Torrey advises people to be aware that if an emotion like sadness or a behavior like drinking takes on “a life of its own” that they should seek out help.

He also offered his hope that “along with all this pain and confusion and disruption that people can find new ways to make new connections. It is an opportunity to reach out to old friends or meet new people,” Torrey said.

“Know that you are not alone. That is the most important thing,” Norton summed up.

The Dartmouth-Hitchcock series “Heads Up: Coping Through COVID-19” web series concludes Wednesday, May 27, with a focus on how seniors are navigating this difficult time. You can send your questions to social@hitchcock.org.


These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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