COVID-19 pandemic strains mental health infrastructure, leaving patients vulnerable

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The COVID-19 pandemic has not just worsened existing mental health issues in individuals, like depression or anxiety, but has also strained the state of Illinois' psychiatric infrastructure, leaving patients vulnerable.

Eric Cowgill manages his depression and addiction with a balance of therapy, medications and support. It kept him in check for years, until the pandemic.

"All of a sudden I was at this place where I needed more help," he said. "It took a lot of people and medications and working with all these teams to get me back where I am today."

The already precious beds for psychiatric patients around the Chicago area are fewer. The head of Linden Oaks Mental and Behavioral Health system said they are operating at only 50% to 60% of their capacity while, at the same time, seeing more patients.

Dr. Walter Whang said despite spacing challenges, emergency rooms and hospitalizations are options if someone may harm themselves. But if you or someone you love is not functioning as they used to, he urged starting with a phone call to a health care professional or a helpline.

"Talking to people can be a really great weight off your shoulders and start the process," he said. "If you are suffering that bad, you can go see someone."

"Our group support groups have increased, like, over 100 percent participation and we are seeing this with 12 step programming, that the virtual environment has actually made it more conducive for people, more acceptable for people," said Alexa James, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Chicago. "We will get through this. Recovery happens."

Cowgill finished treatment and is back to work.

"I really love my life and I appreciate what I have," he said.

Cowgill is now among those answering calls at the National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago helpline, offering support and resources, and the message that it's OK to ask for help.

Mental Health Resources and Helpline Phone numbers

If you are having suicidal thoughts, immediately seek help or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

Mental Health Helpline for all of Chicagoland: 833-626-4244

NAMI Chicago Website

Edward-Elmhurst Behavioral Health Services website and phone number: 630-305-5027
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