How Coronavirus Threatens The Recovery Of Some Who Struggle With Mental Health

By Kristian Foden-Vencil (OPB)
April 3, 2020 2:45 p.m. Updated: April 3, 2020 4:51 p.m.

Kevin Fitts is socially distancing at his HUD apartment in Southeast Portland.

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From there, he’s running the Oregon Mental Health Consumers Association, helping people negotiate everything from COVID-19 to insurance.

Kevin Fitts is worried people dealing with mental illness may lose ground in their recoveries because of COVID-19.

Kevin Fitts is worried people dealing with mental illness may lose ground in their recoveries because of COVID-19.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

He brings a unique understanding of his job because he’s had schizophrenia for decades.

“I hear voices daily. I hear voices this morning. I hear voices in the bathtub," said Fitts.

"I have what they call tactile hallucinations, where I feel otherly forces pressing and making noises on my body.”

Related: For People At Home With COVID-19 Symptoms, Self Care Is More Than 'Call Your Doctor'

It doesn’t make things easier for him that we’re wearing masks while we talk, and I’m brandishing a special long microphone to maintain a safe distance.

Fitts said big societal changes, like the coronavirus, can trigger episodes for people who experience mental health struggles. For example, after 9/11, he spent more than a decade convinced the attacks were a secret government plot.

He said he'd call the CIA and the FBI. He also thought his neighbor was spying on him.

“I did vandalism against his car and broke into the apartment looking for spy gear.”

Fitts pulls up a half dozen of his old mugshots on his computer as proof of his mental health battle.

“My greatest fear that I have is going psychotic again. Second only to suiciding myself.”

Fitts is not alone. Many people with mental illness are worried the pandemic could hurt their recovery. And many of their fears are perfectly rational.

“I fear COVID-19 is going to have a significant impact on unemployment, a significant recession," said Fitts.

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"I suspect our next state legislative session, we’re going to be in tremendous cuts … regarding mental health care, regarding housing. That scares me because I live on public benefits.”

Related: Nearly 93,000 Oregonians Filed New Unemployment Claims Last Week

Only time will tell how food stamps, social security disability and other benefits will fair under the pandemic.

UC Irvine psychology professor Dr. Robin Cohen Silver said society has faced big upheavals before, but the coronavirus is different. The need to socially distance conflicts with our human desire to connect. And the usual sources of relaxation like sports, restaurants and worship are restricted, she said.

“This is an invisible threat, we don’t know who was infected and anybody could infect us. This is an ambiguous threat, we have no idea how bad this will get," said Cohen Silver.

"We have a very uncertain future, we don’t know how long this will last.”

But she said mental health can improve when people acknowledge stress, and remember that humans are resilient.

Still, getting help when things spiral out of control could be a problem during the pandemic.

Psychologist Dr. Robin Henderson, the chief executive of Behavior Health at Providence-Oregon, said they're not allowing visitors into senior psychiatric units. The health system is also restricting the number of visitors to other units, as well as sending away anyone with symptoms.

Henderson concedes it’s tough for patients.

“Sometimes people understand and sometimes they don’t,” said Henderson.

Providence and other health systems are setting up more teleconference capabilities, so patients can get help without potentially being infected. The Oregon Clinic, for example, is now teaching patients to lay their computers on a table when they teleconference -- because doctors are complaining of motion sickness as patients walk around.

Insurance companies are also working to make teleconferencing more mainstream, said Henderson.

Related: How Can We Manage The Stress Of The Coronavirus Pandemic? OSU Offers A Free Course

"We’re seeing insurers set up payment mechanisms so people can get care the way they need to get care. The technology is moving a little slower than we would like, and we’ve got to get the protocols in place, but we’re doing that.”

Back at home with Kevin Fitts, he thinks teleconferences can work with one-on-one visits. But the group meetings that so many rely on for recovery are a different matter.

“My friend got online. There were 170 people for an hour-long AA meeting. Are any of these people from my locality? And am I ever going to get into the queue to share anything?” said Fitts.

Imagine trying to work-out a delicate personal issue in front of 170 strangers. But for many people, online meetings are now besides the point, because libraries are closed and they've lost their internet access.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call for help now. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a free service answered by trained staff 24 hours per day, every day. The number is 1-800-273-8255. Or text 273TALK to 839863.

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