PAXTON, IL – Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are reporting symptoms of depression, according to a recent study in the journal JAMA Network Open , that shows those with lower incomes and high exposure to coronavirus stressors are at greatest risk.
In rural Ford County, more people have reached out for help recently, says Laurelyn Cropek, executive director of the Community Resource and Counseling Center in Paxton, Ill.
The CRCC provides mental health treatment, substance use services and psychiatric care for children and adults.
The pandemic has caused the CRCC, like many other health care providers, to shift to providing more services virtually, which has created both challenges and opportunities. Most clients are seen via teletherapy, which can make counseling services more accessible to people who live farther away or want more privacy, she says.
“The phone and video access, in many cases, has been very helpful, and I’m seeing it as something we’re really going to want to carry forward as a way to make access a lot easier for people,” says Cropek, a licensed clinical social worker and CRCC’s former clinic director.
But internet access can be a challenge — and while phone visits are an option in those cases, they come with a trade-off of not allowing providers and clients to see each other’s faces and body language.
It’s common for depression and anxiety to be exacerbated during stressful times, Cropek says, and she wants people to know help is available.
The CRCC accepts payment from Medicaid or Medicaid Managed Care, Medicare and private insurance. For those without insurance, a sliding scale fee system is available based on income.
Illinois Newsroom spoke with Cropek to learn more about how the pandemic has affected the way the CRCC has been operating.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Christine Herman: What are some of the unique challenges people face accessing mental health care in rural areas?
Laurelyn Cropek: I’m speaking very broadly here, but I think there is a very strong sense of independence in rural areas, and people kind of being used to sort of taking care of themselves, taking care of their own business.
So there can be a high degree of stigma. Also, it’s hard to be anonymous. We talk about privacy and confidentiality, and we certainly do everything we can to honor that. But, the truth is, everybody knows what kind of car I drive, or they recognize my license plate. Or your prescription gets filled at the same drugstore the rest of the town goes to, so that can pose a barrier for people. Although I actually tend to think that once they’ve gotten started that kind of fades away.
Also, the transportation. I mean, the shape of Ford County is such that if you live in the northern part of the County, it may take you 40 minutes to get here if you’re driving.
CH: We hear a lot about the mental health toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. And nationally, we’ve been seeing suicide rates rising. Have you seen an increased need for services in Ford County due to the pandemic?
LC: We have seen an increase in people wanting services, and I can’t say for sure that it’s because of the pandemic. But I do think that that’s one of the reasons.
What we have noticed is that a person who had a little bit of a problem with anxiety before may have much more of a problem with anxiety now. Same with depression.
In general, for someone who has mental health concerns, you know, it’s not what we would usually recommend, to keep themselves locked up at home and not to go out in the community. The circumstances of a pandemic are kind of counterproductive to good mental health in many cases.
CH: How has it been going, having to shift to doing more teletherapy and providing services online more so than in person?
LC: When the pandemic first started, we gave staff the option of working from home. And we were really fortunate with the timing, in terms of the ways we had upgraded our system here.
Two weeks before, we just installed a new server that made it possible for our staff to port in to our client data system from home, and that was huge. The funding for that came from the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois, an active funder in the area.
Also, last year, we had switched over to an internet phone system, which also made it possible for our office staff here to easily transfer calls to people’s individual phones at home. So that was really helpful. So most of our staff decided to work from home; everything was by phone and by video.
To my surprise, we actually found there were many clients who really enjoyed phone and video sessions; some of them prefer it.
CH: Speaking of access, I want to ask about the other side of the coin of teletherapy. Have there been challenges when it comes to rural broadband issues and people not having internet access? Is that something playing out for some of your clients?
LC: We do have clients that don’t have a good signal at all. Now, a lot of those people, though, will just choose to use their phone.
The therapist part of me can struggle with that a little bit because you lose a lot of information when you can’t see someone’s face, or can’t see how their body’s moving or that kind of thing. But it still has been a method that has made it more possible to communicate with people.
CH: Anything else you want people to know?
LC: I do think that people are becoming more aware of behavioral health issues and that it’s sort of becoming more normalized.
Often people are surprised when they realize how prevalent behavioral health issues are. There are so many things I could say here, but one one thing I would say, just about us, is that very often people say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you guys were there.’ So it can be just hard to get the word out.
We see about 800 people a year, and month to month, we have a little over 500 open clients. I think even people from our own community are really surprised when they hear that.
But depression and anxiety… are very common in our society. We kind of treat it like it’s unusual, but it’s really not unusual at all.