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WKYT Investigates | Mental crises during coronavirus

The ongoing pandemic - and previous shutdown - has also led to an increase in suspected overdoses across Kentucky.
Published: Oct. 5, 2020 at 5:00 PM EDT
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LAWRENCEBURG, Ky. (WKYT) - The ‘Survivor Squad’ has been through a lot together.

“These are my sisters and brothers sitting here,” said Katie Stratton, sitting on a picnic table alongside seven others. “They helped me through the darkest times.”

Some of them grew up in Anderson County together, spent time in jail together, attended funerals together.

“We’ve fought this hard battle and here we are still standing,” said Kristen Kincaid. “Some of us we had to bury. And we don’t want to do that no more.”

The group calls themselves, collectively, the ‘Survivor Squad’ because they have survived addiction, even as too many they’ve known didn’t. Yet they know their community and so many others are hurting.

“And the devil works in mysterious ways every day,” said Margaret Cotton, “to try to take us down.”

These are just eight people, but the stories they’re telling - and the struggles they’re sharing - also, no doubt, belong to many more across the commonwealth. Because, as the pandemic progresses, experts are beginning to see certain long-term health effects even on those who haven’t had the coronavirus.

During late June, 40 percent of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use, according to a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC found adverse mental or behavioral health conditions at a rate much higher than was reported during the same period in 2019.

From the survey for late June 2020:

  • 31 percent of U.S. adults reported anxiety or depression.
  • 26 percent reported symptoms of a trauma- or stress-related disorder related to the pandemic.
  • 13 percent started or increased substance use.
  • 11 percent seriously considered suicide.

Likewise, drug overdoses have climbed across Kentucky during the coronavirus outbreak, according to a WKYT Investigates analysis of Kentucky State Ambulance Reporting System (KSTARS) data obtained through an open records request filed with the Kentucky Board of Emergency Medical Services (KBEMS).

Suspected overdose calls to which EMS across the commonwealth responded were up 47.9 percent during the first five months of the COVID-19 outbreak in Kentucky (March 1-July 31), compared to the same time period in 2019. The data, showing incidents in which EMS administered naloxone, a medicine mainly used to reverse opioid overdoses, lists an increase of roughly 2,500 suspected overdoses from that five-month span in 2019 to 2020.

Overdoses spiked during the COVID-19 shutdown in the spring to the highest weekly average in the two years it has been tracked, the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research reports.

“We can’t let our guard down and totally focus on COVID-19 and let this drug epidemic run wild,” Madison County EMS Director Carlos Coyle told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer.

Overdoses in Madison County, the second-most populous county in the Lexington metropolitan area (behind only Fayette County), were already trending higher near the end of 2019, Coyle said. But they also saw a big jump early in the pandemic: a 125 percent increase from April 15-May 15, 2020 compared to that same time last year.

Stimulus checks - and even some lower-level drug criminals being released from jail, Coyle said - could have played a role, county officials believe.

“I think it was kind of a perfect storm that all that kind of hit at the same time,” Coyle said, “and that’s why we saw that peak.”

Overdoses, though, are just one symptom of the struggles that so many are going through right now.

For example, the number of adults across America experiencing symptoms of depression has tripled during the COVID-19 pandemic, a Boston University study found.

Staff at NAMI Lexington, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy and support organization, say they have gotten more calls during the outbreak. They pinpoint isolation, a break from people’s routines and other stressors - like job loss, loss of income, health issues or even loved ones' deaths due to the coronavirus - as potential reasons that more people have been struggling.

“It’s hard to watch people suffer. At the end of the day, like a physical health ailment, mental health symptoms are painful to deal with,” said Jennifer Van Ort-Hazzard, NAMI Lexington’s mental health court coordinator. “The idea of so much change for so fast, and now for so long, and number one, for so much uncertainty - ‘how long do I even need to make this change?’ - it can be overwhelming for anyone.”

Isolation has proved to be an obstacle for many, but especially for several of members of the ‘Survivor Squad,’ who said community plays an important role in their recovery.

“We need each other,” said Marisha Corn. “You think you don’t need anybody, ‘I can do this on my own,’ but you can’t.”

Corn and the others are in group chats together and even attend Zoom meetings as ways to stay in touch and to keep each other accountable.

“We need each other because we’re not always going to make the best choices,” said Tiffany Green. “Everyday isn’t the best day. Life shows up. We have jobs. Jobs end. Relationships end. Deaths happen. And we need each other to hold each other up.”

Experts said they hope that more people talking about mental illness and addiction - particularly now, during a stressful and anxiety-inducing time (and a time in which for many, things have slowed down and allowed people to be more in touch with those feelings) - will work to break down the stigma surrounding it, so people will be more willing to reach out and get the help they need.

“There is light in the darkness,” Green said.

And the pandemic has shown us that people might need that reminder now more than ever.

RESOURCES

Learn more about Mental Illness Awareness Week, going on now, and discover events going on this week. Explore stress and coping strategies. Locate your area’s NAMI affiliate. Find resources to help break the grip of addiction. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7/365 at 1-800-273-8255.

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