Need for Mental Health Care, and Barriers to It, Rise during Covid-19

J.D. O’Gara
Issue Date: 
June, 2020
Article Body: 

Mental health issues are important community concerns in normal times, and they certainly don’t go away during times of a pandemic. If anything, struggles are amplified.
“Families are not normally all under one roof,” says Sen. Karen Spilka, “People are fighting isolation, loneliness and depression.” The Massachusetts Senate President worked with the Secretary of Health and Human Services to use a portion of $10 million earmarked for innovation in mental health programs to create a PSA, released May 15th, aimed at reducing stigma of mental health issues during the pandemic.
“Ask, Listen, Encourage, and Check-in – ALEC,” says Spilka, of the campaign aimed at helping communities care for each other.
Locally, repercussions from the pandemic are being felt. The number of overdoses is up, according to S.A.F.E. Coalition President Jen Knight, who is alerted to overdose statistics town by town, as S.A.F.E. provides support and grief counseling.
“We’ve seen a huge spike in overdoses, and alcohol use is the highest I’ve seen in my professional career,” says Knight, who gets information from local police to provide grief counseling. Knight explains that many who already have a mental health component use alcohol to self-soothe, and what she’s seeing now that she hadn’t before is a rise in calls on behalf of their students, who are binge drinking at home.
Those who rely on AA or NA are seeing a higher relapse rate, too, as Knight says, “While all the Zoom and phone calls are wonderful, there’s a whole host of folks who don’t have access to a smart phone or a laptop, or the Internet. Without any recovery support network, relapse is so much more imminent.”
“It is absolutely accurate that the pandemic has caused a ripple effect in the systems put in place to support those with addiction and recovery,” agrees Jackie Winer, Director of Holliston Youth & Family Services, who co-chairs the Holliston Drug and Alcohol Awareness Coalition (HDAAC) with Melissa Stacy. “We have seen an increase in overdoses as a result,” says Winer.
Winer says caregivers are now needing support for family members who suddenly end up at their doorsteps. These family members need support in helping navigate recovery for their loved ones home from a rehab or who’ve been estranged.
Holliston residents of all ages can still reach out to her office for help, at (508) 429-0620. (
As for S.A.F.E., Knight says, “Covid has drastically changed how this coalition functions from a very basic level. We had opened up (our new location) with plans to open a support group, but due to Covid, all of that has been put on hold.”
The pandemic forced S.A.F.E. to confront how it can provide electronically the same services to the community while at the same time maintaining a high level of privacy. “Even 10 people was not something we wanted to risk,” says Knight.
All the S.A.F.E. services, which are free of charge, then, have moved to telephone or online formats. Support groups, which have seen a rise in demand, include a Learn to Cope group for families of those dealing with substance use disorder on Mondays, a Grandparents Raising Grandchildren group on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays, a 12-step program for parents on Wednesdays, and another general support group for parents on Saturday. They also provide peer mentorship, a grief counselor and chaplain, information on Section 35 and direct clinical counseling in partnership with Wayside Youth and Family Support Systems.
To maintain anonymity, Knight says, S.A.F.E. requires a call first.
“If someone calls and wants to join, we’ll have someone talk with them about the group and whether it will be a good fit, and then we’ll share the (login) information, to honor that privacy.” The S.A.F.E. support line is (508) 488-8105.
S.A.F.E. Narcan training has gone online as well.
“We’ve made a Narcan training video,” says Knight. “If someone wants to be trained in Narcan, they can watch the video, sign the electronic form, and we can drop off Narcan in their mailbox.”
HDAAC, the Holliston Drug and Alcohol Awareness Coalition stakeholders, also provides Narcan, and stakeholders are still virtually meeting weekly, says Winer.
One issue she’s seeing during this pandemic is the normalization of drinking, which HDAAC is looking at combating with educational social media. Also, those in methadone or similar treatment are dealing with less flexibility in obtaining treatment.
Isolation can also take a toll on families, says Winer. “There are some families that just don’t have the resources they need to be able to get through this in a way that’s adaptive,” she says. “The challenge is reaching them, and getting them to connect to us. We think of ourselves as an access point to which individuals can receive support in the community, (bridging) that divide if individuals are having barriers to getting mental health care, whether it’s insurance, a transportation issue, or sometimes families sometimes just don’t know how to navigate the system.”
Outside of Holliston, Winer says, “If you’re confused and don’t know where to turn, just reach out to your town department of social services, or if your town doesn’t have one, perhaps turn to an outreach coordinator at your local senior center.” Another option is to reach out to a community member like a guidance counselor, social worker or doctor you trust.
Winer encourages folks to embrace the new telehealth format of mental health care, pointing to a study by McLean Hospital that showed it to be just as effective as face-to-face therapy.
“We want to encourage families who are reluctant to try it,” says Winer.

Mental Health Resources*
• Call 2 Talk, a statewide service of United Way of Tri-County. A mental health, emotional support, and suicide prevention program run by Mass211. Call 2-1-1 or (508) 532-2255.
• Crisis Text Line, a nationwide service. Text from anywhere in the USA to text with a trained Crisis Counselor. Text TALK to 741741.
• National Parent Helpline. Call 800-4A-PARENT to talk to an operator or go to the website for a roundup of resources including health and mental health, personal safety, parenting, child development.
• LGBTQ Parent & Caregiver Helpline, from Greater Boston PFLAG. Call (866) 427-3524.
• Parental Stress Line, from Parents Helping Parents. Trained volunteer counselors offer non-judgemental ways to relieve stress relating to their children and parenting. Multiple languages spoken. Call (800) 632-8188.
• Veteran's Crisis Line, from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Call 800-273-8255.
Community Resources & Referrals
• Network of Care Massachusetts: Comprehensive statewide online resource to help anyone find information on mental health and substance use supports and services in their community.
• Holliston Youth & Family Services: Taking referrals and supporting Holliston residents seeking services. 508-429-0620.
• Resources to Promote Resilience and Well-Being, from SPARK Kindness.
Regional Direct Services
• SMOC Behavioral Healthcare Outpatient services. Substance abuse and mental health outpatient services to individuals, children and families.
• Psychiatric Emergency Services, from Advocates, Inc. Crisis team provides assessment and intervention, via telephone and video, for people of all ages who are experiencing a mental health and/or substance use emergency. 24 hours each day, call (800) 640-5432.
Online Guide
• Caregiver Guide to Helping Families Cope with the Coronavirus from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. PDF at

*compiled by the office of Sen. Karen Spilka

SUBSTANCE USE DISORDER SUPPORT: (800) 327.5050 Helpline for treatment information and support.
Online intergroup for AA meetings:
Online and remote resources for substance treatment and recovery:
Virtual Substance Use Recovery Resources:
Learn to Cope:
for people who have a loved one with substance use disorder or in recovery. Virtual support group meetings available.
Teens can be impacted by having a loved one who struggles with misuse of alcohol. Alateen is a space for teens to come together in a safe space if they have a person in their life who struggles with alcohol. In-person support might not be available at this time given the COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean support isn’t available.
WeConnect Recovery Meetings:
Even if in-person meetings can’t happen, there is an amazing virtual network at WeConnect Recovery meetings to help those in recovery from a substance use disorder. Use the link above to get more information about participating in a free, virtual support group. You are not alone!
Partnership for Drug Free Kids: now offering live online gatherings for parents and caregivers who may have children experimenting with, or dependent on, substances on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 8-9 p.m. and Saturdays, 11 a.m. -12 p.m. Sign up at
Other Local Resources:
• SAFE Coalition,, Franklin, 508-488-8105
• Turning Point Recovery Center, Walpole (508) 668-3960
• Wayside Youth and Family Support,, Milford, 508-478-6888
• Riverside Community Care,, Milford, 800-294-4665
National Resources:
• resource highlights support programs online nationwide