‘It’s definitely worrisome’: Mental health professionals get ready for increase in need during winter months

SPOKANE, Wash. – Fewer daylight hours and colder weather means fewer chances to be outside. Behavioral health professionals anticipate more people will need help in the next few months.

Dr. Suzie Johnson says her clients at Frontier Behavioral Health sometimes tell her they feel alone, that no one understands what they’re going through.

“Today, that’s not necessarily true,” she said.

While everyone has different circumstances, we’re all feeling the same thing: Stressed and sad because of the pandemic.

Frontier Behavioral Health says it saw a 25 percent increase in people reaching out for crisis services from March to September of this year comparing to the same months last year. Reaching out for help in crisis services means those people were in need of help immediately.

The pandemic has affected so many people already, from unemployment to kids learning from home.

“All of that, I think, combines to really create a scenario, it’s going to be a challenge for I think not just months to come, but beyond,” said Jeff Thomas, the CEO of Frontier Behavioral Health. “We really need to be prepared for that.”

As for its outpatient services, Frontier Behavioral Health said it saw a dip in people accessing help at the beginning of the pandemic, but around July and August, they saw more people reaching out for help. They had to minimize in-person services, and moved to telehealth services. Now, it’s seeing the same level of people reaching out before COVID-19 and Thomas anticipates it to increase.

With the leaves falling – an indication that winter is on the way – people won’t have the same outlets they did in the summer.

Johnson said October and November are normally her busy months; people reach out to her worried about seasonal affective disorder. Johnson says her patients are afraid they’re going to feel more isolated this winter, especially as the pandemic continues.

“It’s definitely worrisome. The increase we’re anticipating in people accessing services will undoubtedly put a strain on organizations like ours,” Thomas said.

He says their industry, right now, is already strapped enough helping people get through the pandemic.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, about 3 million Washingtonians will be experiencing some sort of behavioral health symptom through January. That includes feeling some depression, anxiety or stress.

Even though places like Frontier Behavioral Health will be busy, they will still help you.

There are many ways to take care of yourself and your family as the pandemic continues and through the winter months.

“We absolutely want people to reach out, to be calling our crisis line, to be calling the COVID Washington Listens Line, talking to somebody and ask who can help them get the services they need,” Thomas said.

The Washington Listens Line was created by the state to help people during COVID-19. Frontier Behavioral Health has staff who answer the phone and help people. Those who do pick up the phone to help are just there to listen to people, not give medical advice.

Since it launched in the summer, Thomas says about 6,000 people in the state have reached the Washington Listens Line by phone, so far. He added that the website has about half a million hits, leading people to find other resources.

RELATED: State launches ‘Washington Listens’ support line in response to COVID-19 stress

Those of you who do feel more sad during the winter months can get a happy light. It’s a light that can be set up at a desk and gives off light. Johnson says it’s also helpful to possibly get some tropical-scented candles.

“Make the atmosphere kind of summer-like if that helps them evoke like happier thoughts or feelings,” Johnson said.

Johnson encourages people to make plans for the future. Even though it’s the winter, there are some winter activities that could be done, like snowshoeing or skiing.

“We’re encouraging our clients to have a “‘cope-ahead plan,’ so they can be strategic… ‘What can I do in November.’ “What can I plan ahead for, so I don’t’ flip into that depression hold,'” Johnson said.

It’s also a good idea to stay socially connected to family and friends, whether it’s on the phone or video chat.

Remember that the pandemic isn’t going to last forever, too.

“We just have to keep having resiliency, to be able to say we are a strong people, and to be kind and to be wise about things and reach out to our loved ones as much as possible. Just stay strong,” she said.

Those who are in need of some professional help should reach out.

Thomas says there are people out there who are feeling depressed or anxious that may even need some professional help.  He encourages people to ask for help when needed, otherwise it could get worse.

Here are a list of resources:

RELATED: Mental health concerns grow as pandemic grinds on

There are ways for people to help others, even if they don’t have a medical degree. Thomas says Frontier Behavioral Health provides a mental health first aid program, where people can get trained on mental health needs. He said they started the program that during the pandemic.

For more information on that program, click here.