‘We are all going through this:’ Albany County mental health hotline helping hundreds – Albany Times Union

Posted: May 26, 2020 at 6:47 pm

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Social worker shares stories from front lines of the COVID-19 mental health epidemic 1of8Volunteer and licensed social worker Maygin Rittinger is seen in Washington Park on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 in Albany, N.Y. Albany County launched a mental health support line in March as concerns about pandemic-related stress grew. (Lori Van Buren/Times Union)Lori Van Buren/Albany Times Union 2of8Volunteer and licensed social worker Maygin Rittinger is seen in Washington Park on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 in Albany, N.Y. Albany County launched a mental health support line in March as concerns about pandemic-related stress grew. (Lori Van Buren/Times Union)Lori Van Buren/Albany Times Union 3of8Volunteer and licensed social worker Maygin Rittinger is seen in Washington Park on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 in Albany, N.Y. Albany County launched a mental health support line in March as concerns about pandemic-related stress grew. (Lori Van Buren/Times Union)Lori Van Buren/Albany Times Union 4of8Volunteer and licensed social worker Maygin Rittinger is seen in Washington Park on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 in Albany, N.Y. Albany County launched a mental health support line in March as concerns about pandemic-related stress grew. (Lori Van Buren/Times Union)Lori Van Buren/Albany Times Union 5of8Volunteer and licensed social worker Maygin Rittinger is seen in Washington Park on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 in Albany, N.Y. Albany County launched a mental health support line in March as concerns about pandemic-related stress grew. (Lori Van Buren/Times Union)Lori Van Buren/Albany Times Union 6of8Volunteer and licensed social worker Maygin Rittinger is seen in Washington Park on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 in Albany, N.Y. Albany County launched a mental health support line in March as concerns about pandemic-related stress grew. (Lori Van Buren/Times Union)Lori Van Buren/Albany Times Union 7of8Volunteer and licensed social worker Maygin Rittinger is seen in Washington Park on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 in Albany, N.Y. Albany County launched a mental health support line in March as concerns about pandemic-related stress grew. (Lori Van Buren/Times Union)Lori Van Buren/Albany Times Union 8of8Volunteer and licensed social worker Maygin Rittinger is seen in Washington Park on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 in Albany, N.Y. Albany County launched a mental health support line in March as concerns about pandemic-related stress grew. (Lori Van Buren/Times Union)Lori Van Buren/Albany Times Union

ALBANY Whats it like to work a mental health hotline during a global health pandemic?

Kind of therapeutic, to be honest, said Maygin Rittinger, a licensed master social worker who lives in Albany and is one of 19 people who take turns fielding calls to Albany Countys COVID-19 mental health support line.

The hotline was set up in March, as it became clear the coronavirus pandemic was causing more than just a global health emergency. The abrupt shuttering of schools and businesses, the loss of jobs and loved ones, the forced isolation, the disruption to everyday routines all of it was coalescing to create a mental health crisis on a scale many believe will have ripple effects for years and decades to come.

A lot of times in my experience with mental health and therapy, people can be on the defense, said Rittinger, who also works on the countys Mobile Crisis Team. Theres this feeling of, Oh, you dont get it, you dont understand what Im going through. But with this, were all experiencing it together. Theres this kind of collective struggle were all feeling right now, and thats made me feel more connected than ever to others.

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy announced March 18 that the county would be launching the hotline in order to provide non-crisis support to people experiencing emotional distress as a result of the pandemic (the county has a separate crisis hotline for people in life-threatening situations).

In the approximately two months since it went live, the line has fielded 286 calls, according to county spokeswoman Mary Rozak. Roughly a dozen staff from the countys Department of Mental Health, as well as six community volunteers, receive the calls. The staff are members of the countys Emergency/Disaster Mental Health Response Team, which provides support and connects residents to services in times of emergency, such as after a fire.

Concerns from callers have been wide-ranging, according to Rittinger.

Shes fielded calls from people who are scared of the virus itself and of dying, from the elderly who are sick of being cooped up at home and miss their formerly active lives, from the newly unemployed, and from people with no history of mood disorders who are struggling with feelings theyve never known before.

One lady said she was feeling so tired and sad, and just couldnt understand why, Rittinger recalled. She didnt have the vocabulary for what that might be.

Rittinger fielded one call from a nurse who had tested positive for COVID-19, and was struggling with the complicated feelings that arise from realizing your job of helping others has put your own life at risk.

She had a lot of fear about, is this job worth my health? Is my life less valuable than someone elses? Is this something I want to go back to? Do I have any other options? Those fears are very valid, Rittinger said. The risk that frontline workers are taking right now is just unbelievable.

The suicides of two frontline medical workers in April has spurred ongoing concerns about the mental health impact of the COVID-19 crisis on health care workers. Many had to work without adequate PPE (personal protective equipment), risking exposure to themselves and their loved ones. They also saw firsthand the damage the virus and the isolation it forced inflicted on individuals and their loved ones.

Rittinger also receives calls from people who just want to talk. One of the more memorable calls, she said, was from an elderly woman who talked about her kids and how she used to visit them in New York City.

We talked for over an hour, she said. She was very grateful just to have a listening ear. People are alone right now, and I think they are feeling it. They dont have people to bounce these thoughts off of.

Rittinger said she suspects a lot of people are experiencing feelings and traumas they may have had long before the pandemic but are only just now noticing because theyve been forced to slow down.

The distractions are gone, she said. Youre not distracted with shopping and going to the movies and socializing and going out to the bars. Youre left with, OK, this is me in this world right now and how do I feel? In our hustle and bustle society, we dont really have time to sit down and examine our feelings like that. It can be very uncomfortable for people.

Despite that, it may well be worth exploring those feelings while you have the chance, Rittinger said. Feelings that are suppressed often become worse and can manifest in unhealthy or unwanted behavior.

Rittinger also wants people to know that there is no wrong way to feel right now. If you feel like staying in bed all day, stay in bed all day but dont beat yourself up over it, she said.

The best thing that someone can do when experiencing mental or emotional distress is to reach out, she said. That could mean to a trusted friend or family member, or to a licensed and trained professional.

We are all going through this, she said. None of us have done this before. I would encourage anyone to reach out and if its not something you would normally do, thats OK, because this is not something that would normally be happening.

The Albany County COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line is available seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at 518-269-6634. Anyone experiencing a psychiatric emergency should call the Albany County Mobile Crisis Team at 518-549-6500.

New York state has also established a mental health support line for the coronavirus crisis. The number is 844-863-9314.

Bethany Bump writes about all things health, including state and local health policy, addiction and mental health for the Times Union.

She has previously covered education, business and local governments, and won awards for her coverage of health care and addiction issues.

Bump joined the Times Union in 2015, after a four-year stretch at The Daily Gazette in Schenectady, N.Y. She graduated from Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in 2011, with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science.

Contact her at (518) 454-5387 or bbump@timesunion.com or on twitter @bethanybump.

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'We are all going through this:' Albany County mental health hotline helping hundreds - Albany Times Union

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