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COVID-19 & the Toll it Takes on Our Mental Health

When he thinks about that May 2017 day, all he can see is the lights: a flashing red and blue following him all the way home. He doesn’t remember the argument, or the tears, or the handcuffs ensnaring his wrists as the cops led him away.

When he thinks about that May 2017 day, all he can see is the lights: a flashing red and blue following him all the way home. He doesn’t remember the argument, or the tears, or the handcuffs ensnaring his wrists as the cops led him away. Later on, at Denton County Jail, he would try to piece together what happened, but his memory was pockmarked, a haze of sadness and rage. He can see the lights, taste the Blood & Honey beer and, if he tries hard, he can almost picture himself taking the antidepressants. It’s there, in the drunk tank, that he realizes with resigned horror, I’ve done it again.

That wasn’t Richard Harris’ first arrest, but he has vowed to make it his last. Now 53 with a snow white goatee, Harris has endured decades of disappointments and run-ins with the law.

“I never felt much love from my family,” he says. “When it turned out I wasn't going to be a manly man, things went really downhill for me.”

Growing up, he wanted to write and play guitar, but according to his parents, those were hobbies, not jobs. It didn’t help that he felt a creeping sadness lurking around every corner as far back as age 11. The young Harris would lose interest in homework, books and girls, and often feel as if nothing mattered. The Army helped, giving him structure, purpose, and the chance to travel at bases in Europe. But when he returned, he went right back to feeling lost and listless. So he drank, crashed cars, got arrested, pissed off his already pissed-off parents, and bounced from city to city with nothing more than a guitar and a bag full of clothes.

It wasn’t until the late ’90s, while working at Ross Perot’s EDS Systems in Plano, that Richard Harris finally got a name for what had plagued him all his life: depression. He got on medication, but every now and then, he would make the mistake of mixing his antidepressants with beer or liquor. That’s what he did one afternoon in May 2017, when the Denton cops tailed his swerving vehicle to his girlfriend Jennifer’s house, then threw Harris in the drunk tank.

“When I got out of jail, I walked to Jennifer’s place,” he says. “Of course, she told me I couldn’t stay there anymore. So I started staying in shelters.”

Harris continued to bounce around North Texas, but he felt better, stronger. He was seeing a therapist through the VA, and in spring 2018, he quit drinking. The perpetual cycle of “one step forward, three steps back” seemed to be ending.

“In March of this year, I celebrated being two years sober,” he says. “It felt like everything was going to work out. And then, here comes coronavirus.”

_ _

Harris is one of roughly 50 million Americans who struggle with some form of mental illness. In Texas, that number is 7 million. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, psychiatrists and advocates worry that those figures will creep even higher, if they were even accurate to begin with.

“They say 1 in 5 people struggle with their mental health, but I think it’s much higher,” says Sherri McCarthy, who works for Denton County MHMR.

McCarthy and other counselors are trying to play catch-up, helping men like Harris cope with a year full of one stressor after another.

“That’s the toughest part, man,” Harris says. “You’ve got all of this going on at once. The election. The unrest. The isolation. And here I am. I can’t help but feel that I’m all alone, and that’s the hardest part.”

Terri Donsbach wants people like Harris to know they’re not alone. For the last three decades, Donsbach has done mental health work in five different states. Now she’s in Collin County, leading the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (MCOT) at LifePath Systems.

“The last three months have been the most profound in my career,” Donsbach says. “We’re seeing more people struggle with their mental health than ever before.”

Since 2017, LifePath Systems has been the local mental health authority in Collin County. The organization runs four group homes for people for intellectual disabilities and assists county denizens with everything from counselor visits to crisis intervention.

“When we get calls from people who need us, we go out there,” says Tammy Mahan, the organization’s CEO. “We’re out there in the field, working with people who are suicidal or psychotic.”

That’s where Donsbach comes in. MCOT responds to the calls that come in to Collin County’s local suicide hotline. They’ll go to hospitals, homes, jails, wherever. The caller doesn’t even have to be a county resident; if they’re in Collin County, Donsbach’s team is answering the call. When the pandemic started, her job got a little trickier.

Hospitals barred visitors, as did jails, group homes, and senior living communities. Even some callers who reached out asking for help were hesitant about anyone they didn’t know entering their home.

“In a matter of a day, we changed everything,” says Mahan. “We typically don’t use PPE in our field, but we had to get as much as we could as fast as we could. People with intellectual disabilities really need connection, and they were used to a steady stream of visitors. So we had to get iPads and teach people how to use them. But the biggest thing was telehealth.”

Within a matter of days, LifePath shifted all counseling appointments online. It went about as smoothly as Mahan could have asked for, with no major hiccups or delays in service. But some things can’t be moved online.

By mid-April, Donsbach noticed a significant increase in calls to Collin County’s crisis hotline. Soon enough, her team was fielding 1,400 calls a month, hundreds more than the average month in 2019. Some of those calls could be handled entirely over the phone, with Donsbach’s team providing the reassurance and support callers needed in that moment, then working to get the caller an appointment with a counselor as soon as possible. Other times, an in-person visit was unavoidable.

“I’ve been on calls recently where I’m face-to-face with someone who is suicidal,” Donsbach says. “And when they realize you’re there, really there, and you’re able to help, their face changes. You can’t see something like that and not have your whole world changed.”

_ _

When Sherri McCarthy woke up and realized she was still alive, she was furious. It was the spring of 1978, and McCarthy, a 20-year-old undergrad at DePauw University, had swallowed a fistful of pills.

“I hated myself,” she says. “I wasn’t the person you might think would try to kill herself; I had friends, I was successful. But I despised myself, and I thought the world would be a better place without me.”

When McCarthy’s suitemates heard her vomiting uncontrollably, they called an RA, who rushed the music major to a tiny local ER. Hours later, after doctors had shoved a tube down her throat to cease the vomiting, McCarthy woke from a slumber in a hospital in nearby Indianapolis. She put in a collect call to DePauw, and got a ride back to campus.

“My family never talked about it,” she says. “I never talked about it, either. It wasn’t until 2011 that I really shared what actually happened.”

Now, talking about it is part of her job. McCarthy is a licensed counselor with Denton County’s MHMR Mobile Crisis Outreach Team. As people exit psychiatric hospitals, she helps them enroll in services, arrange medical appointments, and attain the medication they need. She is also part of the organization’s LOSS team: Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors. When a son, daughter or parent attempts suicide, McCarthy is usually there that same afternoon, talking to the family and, in effect, trying to prevent more suicide attempts.

“People exposed to suicide have a much higher rate of attempting suicide themselves,” she says. “So we get there as soon as we can, and try to do what we can to help them understand what happened and what they’re feeling.”

Five years after graduating from DePauw, McCarthy moved to North Texas and earned an M.A. in Counseling from Texas Woman’s University. Since the early 1990s, she’s worked as a behavioral clinician, a school counselor and a clinical supervisor, supporting adults and children as they struggle with substance and mental health crises. She also served as a board member with Touched By Suicide, a North Texas nonprofit that provides free support groups to people who have lost a loved one to suicide. And while her day-to-day work still includes plenty of one-on-one interactions with people in crisis, she’s spent the last several months trying to get 10 numbers added to a flyer.

“Many of the people I work with have lost their jobs because of COVID,” she says. “Some people have lost their health insurance, and are on the verge of losing their apartments. “I’m working with a gentleman right now that’s in a really tough spot,” she says. “He’s living in a weekly hotel, but he doesn’t know how he’ll pay rent. Whenever eviction notices go out, suicides increase.”

While a recent CDC declaration has banned evictions until 2021, Texas tenants are still receiving eviction notices. McCarthy thinks it’s only fair those notices include your local crisis hotline. Oftentimes, her work feels too reactive; she often can only act after a crisis has begun. She wanted to be as proactive as possible.

“I spent months trying to track down how to get this number added,” she says. “First it was, ‘You gotta talk to this person,’ then it’s, ‘Oh no, you gotta talk to this person.’”

Finally, after spending much of summer and plenty of the fall navigating seemingly endless red tape, McCarthy got 1-800-762-0157 added to every eviction notice in Denton County. It’s a big win, but she’s not celebrating. Frankly, she doesn’t have the time to celebrate.

“All of the medical journals say we’re going to experience a large wave of mental health repercussions from COVID,” she says. “And I’ll be honest: I’m worried.”

_ _

Richard Harris wakes up every morning and texts his ex-girlfriend.

“Good morning,” he writes. Usually, she writes back.

It’s been almost three years since his last arrest, and when he was interviewed in October, Harris was still on probation for evading arrest. He doesn’t remember evading, but he trusts the cops on that one. Jennifer is still a big part of his life, and the two see each other frequently. She calls Harris “Lionheart,” even though he rarely feels courageous. Apart from her, the only consistent human contact Harris gets is from his therapist.

Since March 2020, he and Dr. Gibson have had weekly Zoom calls. They talk about how Harris is still looking for a job, and how frustrated he is about constantly teetering on the edge of homelessness. Jennifer helps him out with the occasional Venmo, but most months, Harris isn’t sure if he’ll make rent.

“It’s really hard being 53 and trying to start over,” he says. “I want to feel like I am my own person. I don’t want to rely on anyone else to get by.”

Up against all of that, Harris is trying to stay optimistic.

“COVID-19 destroyed a lot of the progress I was making in my job search,” he says. “But I want to learn to cope with it. I want to be a Lionheart.”

After texting Jennifer, he’ll rummage around in his fridge, make a small breakfast, then power on his laptop. He’ll hunt for jobs (“ideally something creative, something involving writing or editing”) and he’ll try to avoid getting sucked into a void of one depressing news story after another. In October, the month before the election, that last task was particularly difficult.

After that, Harris will take a walk around Denton. His apartment is located just off campus at the University of North Texas, and walking has always soothed him. When he was in the Army, he walked around Waddington, England. When he was in Plano, he walked around the massive office complex housing EDS Systems. Now, he walks around Denton, often exploring downtown. There aren’t many people out, but just being among other humans calms Harris.

“It’s a very heartbreaking and volatile time to be an American,” he says. “I hope we can collectively get it together, for everyone’s sake. And I miss people, man. I want to go into coffee shops and just hang out--I want us to be okay.”

That’s what McCarthy and Donsbach want too. Both of their organizations are being inundated with more phone calls than ever before, but even if they weren’t, “planning ahead” isn’t exactly a hallmark of the mental health profession.

“This is a day-by-day field,” says Donsbach. “We live in the gray. We live in today. Then when it’s tomorrow, we live in tomorrow.”

Even still, both professionals can’t help but think what their field will look like in 2021 and beyond. They know the weeks and months ahead will include some sleepless nights, and many 12-hour days. The calls are going to keep coming, and a vaccine probably won’t change that. When asked what their plans are for a post-pandemic world, the mental health veterans said something remarkably similar.

“We need to figure out where people are, then get them the health they need,” McCarthy says.

Donsbach agrees and adds, “We need to get our arms around as many people as possible. That’s the plan.”

Originally published in Local Profile's January/February 2021 issue