HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- By now, everyone knows the telltale signs of a possible COVID-19 infection, but it's the slow and insidious symptoms of mental health issues more than a year into the pandemic that has experts and law enforcement alike sounding the alarm.
"We are living in an environment of imbalance," said Dr. Neal Sarahan, executive director of NAMI Greater Houston. "There's an environment of uncertainty. There is an invisible virus which is out there. We have all been challenged to change."
Thursday night, ABC13 gathered doctors and mental health advocates for a town hall highlighting the urgency to address a growing problem in our communities.
In the last year, Houston police said it made 12,000 mental health crisis calls, in addition to seeing a 20% increase in family violence calls.
"People are just angry," HPD Assistant Chief Wendy Baimbridge said. "People are at home, the kids are at home, people are not working, people are stressed, many people have lost their jobs, it's just exasperated the problem."
Meanwhile, the number of people seeking help for mental health issues is on the rise.
Baylor College of Medicine executive vice chair Dr. Asim Shah said he's seen a nearly 40% increase in mental health patients visiting the emergency room during the pandemic.
In Texas, 40.1% of adults reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder as a result of the pandemic, exceeding the national average of 37.7% of U.S. adults, according to an October 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation study.
"When we think about what's happened in Houston in the last four years, the trauma that Houstonians have had to deal with resulting from (Hurricane Harvey), school shootings, of course the pandemic, as well as our recent winter storm... finding opportunities to increase resiliency is vastly important," said Ranae Vania Tomczak, president and CEO of Mental Health America of Greater Houston.
Yet through all the struggles our region has seen, the message our experts hoped to send Thursday night is there is help available.
How to Support Someone Who is Struggling
1. Stay alert and ready to get help early: Dr. Shah says behaviors like depression, isolation and someone losing interest in activities they used to enjoy should be red flags. If you see these or other concerning signs, it's time to get help. "There are lots of things available, even if you don't have insurance," Shah said.
2. Build a tool kit: Sadness or depression are normal human emotions, says Dr. Sarahan, who recommends having frank discussions with children and teens about these feelings during traumatic events. He also recommends finding age-appropriate books and movies that deal with these emotions.
3. Choose your words carefully: Sarahan says asking "how are you dealing?" instead of "are you okay?" will yield more honest answers from loved ones about their mental health.
4. Don't forget to take care of yourself, too: "I just want to remind everyone that self-care is not selfish. You need to take care of yourself," Tomczak said. "It may sound cliché, but taking a walk or calling a friend really does help."
5. Know it's okay not to be okay: "This time is not normal. This pandemic is not normal. Being socially isolated is not normal, and every person is struggling in one way or another," said Dr. Maria Rivera, with Harris County Public Health. "Lots of people are experiencing these symptoms for the first time, and you can get help and feel better."
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. You can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada) and The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. The Texas Health and Human Services COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line can be reached at 833-986-1919.