New Jersey’s Mental Health Crisis Amid the Pandemic

When the pandemic hit and lockdown started in March of 2020, the world found itself in a frenzy. The pandemic and economic recession are hitting people hard. Globally, people were forced out of their normal routines and ordered to stay at home, fearing the threat of the COVID-19 virus. Naturally, this caused many to panic.


Just like the rest of the world, New Jerseyans felt the pressure of the crisis situation as well. While being physically isolated and dealing with all of the additional hardships due to the pandemic, mental health heavily decreased. The extra free time from quarantine, however, allowed for people to think more about their needs and mental health, and to search for help.


Wait times for therapists during the pandemic has increased due to a spike in demand. Now, in New Jersey, there is a to sixty-day wait for a private counselor, and three to five months wait time to see an emergency therapist. Executive director of the National Association of Social Workers’ New Jersey chapter, Jennifer Thompson, says, “Everywhere you turn, everyone is at capacity, We’re in a crisis situation. There are a lot of people seeking help who can’t get it when they need it most.” Jonathan Caspi, a therapist with a practice in Montclair and Hazlet, has seen a demand for service, especially from families. Yet he is all booked, just like other practices. In fact, he commented, "I used to refer them to other therapists, but they’re all full, too.”


A KFF Health Tracking Poll from July of 2020 shows the negative impacts of the pandemic on mental health. Of the adults surveyed, 36% experienced difficulty sleeping and 32% experienced trouble eating, 12% had increased substance abuse or alcohol consumption, and 12% noticed worsening chronic conditions—all due to the stress and worry from the pandemic. Unlike many others, an addiction center in Camden County has seen a decrease in patients, as substance abuse has risen and the want for a therapist has decreased for some. Ashley Roselli, director of substance abuse at Delaware Valley Medical in Pennsauken, said, “We're seeing a lot of relapse, and those people aren't coming in anymore. We’re fighting an epidemic in a pandemic.”


Remote counseling is useful during this time, but can also be very difficult and inconvenient. It is also very limited compared to in-person sessions. Nancy Graham, a social worker and executive at the Renfrew Center, an eating disorder clinic, expressed her thoughts on remote therapy, “When they are with us, and we think they’re suicidal or want to do self-harm, we can get them help immediately. That can be tricky now. If they disappear from the screen, and we think they’re suicidal, we have to have someone nearby that we can call to make sure they’re safe.” Trouble areas regarding group therapy via video chat include technical issues and struggling to maintain focus. For phone call sessions, they are often awkward and lack being able to see both parties talking to one another. Also, it may not be an option at all for people who use nonverbal communication. Overall, not being able to have in-person supervision over patients has been a struggle many therapists have been noticing.


There has also been a delay in having new social workers and counselors licensed. As a result, this has caused an even more significant delay in seeking help. In New Jersey, licenses are much slower than other states, usually taking about thirty days. Pre-pandemic, the State Board of Social Work Examiners generally took three months to approve an application, but now takes six months up to nearly two years amid the pandemic.


Between two and four thousand emergency licenses were issued to try to help the crisis. On the issue, Thompson has shared, "They are processing some in three months, but those with issues are taking up to 12 to 18 months. One thing that’s a challenge is that people who are reaching out for help get one piece of an answer and no follow-up, so they sit in limbo for months or until they show up at a board meeting and speak in public." Due to this high demand, many counselors have been forced to turn away patients, “Sometimes the phone calls or emails are heartbreaking,” Capsi said. “I don’t want to take them if I can’t devote the time needed to help them.”


Good alternatives for those struggling may be hotlines. Text “HELLO” to 741741 for the crisis text line, or dial 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (avaibleble 24 hours every day).


Hotlines for help:

Suicide prevention

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 NJ Hope Line: 855-654-6735

Addiction

ReachNJ: 844-732-2465

NJ Connect for Recovery: 855-652-3737

IME Addictions Access Center: 844-276-2777

Council on Compulsive Gambling of NJ: 800-426-2537)

General mental health and emotional support New Jersey Hope and Healing: 866-202-4357

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