Editor’s note: To contact the Mobile Crisis Response team for help, call 541-997-3515, the non-emergency number of emergency dispatch. In case of emergency, contact 911 and ask for MCR.
July 3, 2020 — Since the pandemic and resulting shutdown began, the Siuslaw region’s Mobile Crisis Response Team (MCR) has seen a rise in the number of calls of suicidal thoughts and attempts. One of the biggest increases has been seen in the younger population of the region.
“We’ve got a lot of people struggling right now,” said Lori Severance, who works with the MCR program. “There are mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or issues with bipolar. A lot of times, it’s connected with being underemployed, unemployed — just not being able to get on their feet.”
For the older population, Severance stated that one of the biggest concerns she is seeing is fear of the pandemic. While the population has adapted well to many of the restrictions the shutdowns have brought, tourists and locals alike have flouted regulations regarding social distancing and mask wearing. This can keep residents at risk from the virus away from local businesses, which in turns affects jobs.
“There’s no easy answer,” Severance said about the pandemic. “As a town, if we enforce it and depoliticize it and make it an issue of total safety and respect. It’s time to find a new normal. This is going to be with us for a while. It’s not going to go away anytime soon. We can’t just hunker down at home and be fearful. We’ve got to find a new way to get out there that is safe for everybody.”
Above all, Severance said people need hope.
“The main thing is to give people hope and baby steps in the right direction,” she added.
When Severance started with Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue three years ago, the department had a chaplain who would respond to sudden death situations, car accidents and house fires.
“When he retired, they replaced him with four people,” she said. “We renamed the program the Community Support Team (CST) because we wanted to broaden our clientele.”
In November of last year, Western Lane Fire and EMS Authority signed a contract with Lane County to provide 24/7 mental health crisis services in addition to the services local agencies were already providing. This led to the creation of the MCR.
“In our first six months of the program, we were single coverage and we were just in Florence proper,” Severance said. “We needed law enforcement backup for single people responding. Starting this week, we’re going to have double coverage. We’re going to expand out and cover all of western Lane county.”
When the pandemic hit, it was thought that calls would increase, but instead, they were flat.
“The ambulance numbers, interestingly enough, were down as well. People were afraid to have contact with others and to get the help that had other people dependent on coming to their home,” Severance said.
In April, the call volumes started going up, and June marked the busiest time for the MCR in its history. At that point, MCR staff members were able to see a broader picture of mental health in the region.
“The kinds of people that we are seeing are those struggling with suicidal thoughts,” Severance said.
Before the pandemic, the Siuslaw region already had a high suicide rate. Oregon’s highest rate of suicide is men aged 85 and older, which makes up a good portion of the retirement community of Florence.
“I think we have a lot of people here, and a lot of retired older veterans who have health issues,” Severance said. “According to the statistics, that seems to be our main risk factor with people here.”
In the past three years, Severance has responded to 35 suicide completion calls.
“That’s about one a month. Our region is very high,” she said.
However, since the pandemic began, those calling with suicidal thoughts have skewed much younger.
“Our team is seeing much younger people,” Severance said. “We see a lot of younger people attempting or contemplating suicide.”
She did not see an uptick in completed suicides, which appears to be remaining steady. But the early thoughts of contemplation can turn deadly if issues are not addressed.
“A good number of them have lost their jobs,” Severance said. “They are sometimes underemployed, unemployed and can’t support their families. They are needing to go back to live with their family, or divorce. It’s a combination of factors where their life has fallen apart.
“I think the pandemic has exacerbated all of those things for people, just in terms of how hopeless they feel about being able to recover.”
While each circumstance is unique to each individual, Severance stated that issues are compounding for younger workers in the community. First, they lose their job, which in turn can cause them to lose their relationship or create instability in their housing situation.
“They start drinking or using drugs,” Severance suggested.
As for the types of drugs, she stated that callers have not reported issues with marijuana.
“I think we have a good size problem with methamphetamines in this community,” Severance added. “I’d say those are probably the biggest problems. We probably get calls two-to-three times per month, and that’s fairly steady.”
The largest problem she is seeing is with alcohol abuse, which occurs across all age groups.
“I would say that a good portion, maybe 40 percent, use alcohol consistently or define alcohol as a problem for them,” Severance said. “I see a lot of alcoholism.”
Many of those struggling with alcohol and suicidal thoughts are also struggling with mental health conditions such as depression or bipolar.
“There are people who have not sought services and have not been diagnosed,” Severance said. “A lot of times people will try and self-regulate their moods through drugs and alcohol. That then masks the symptoms, and it becomes hard to know if the symptoms are due to alcohol or an underlying bipolar situation. A lot of people are undiagnosed.”
While each call MCR receives is unique when it comes to causes, ““It’s always complex, with multiple issues,” Severance said.
But the one thing that all people need right now is hope.
MCR works with multiple local programs for people, from counseling to AA to financial help during the pandemic.
Severance mentioned grants from Siuslaw Outreach Services (SOS) that can help pay utilities, as well as the Christmas in June program, which is continuing to raise funds to help those financially struggling through the pandemic. People can call organizer Sam Spayd at 541-991-6139 for more information on the program.
“What we try to do is get people started at one point. We try and take it one step at a time to try and stop that snowball effect and turn things around. It’s never simple. It’s very hard. It’s going to take time,” Severance said.
She also stated that reopening business can help as well, getting people back to work.
“I’m sure it will help,” she said. “I can’t put a number to that. We’re certainly not seeing any fewer, in terms of numbers, people who are struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. I don’t see a decrease in those numbers yet. But again, things are just beginning to reopen.”
But reopening Oregon after the shutdowns has had a difficult beginning, as can be seen with the older population of Florence.
“I think the elderly have probably adjusted better to the limitations of the pandemic than the younger people,” Severance noted. “A lot of them are very comfortable staying at home. They may not go out a lot. And they’re more safety conscious, willing to wear masks, willing to protect their health. They’re more conscious of their health.”
That’s not to say that older populations aren’t struggling, as issues they had before the pandemic still remain today.
“A lot of the issues they struggle with are health problems, social isolation, and people who have been widowed and living alone,” Severance said. “I’m really surprised in this community by people who don’t have any kind of social support system. They may have no children, or the children live out of state. They don’t go to church, they don’t go to any social groups. They don’t have friends or neighbors who they socialize with. A lot of people lose their spouse and are completely isolated, with a very limited ability to take care of themselves as well.”
There’s also issues with disorientation, which makes up a fair amount of calls for MCR.
“It’s something that goes along with living in a much older population,” she said. “We have a city of elderly people, some of whom may be experiencing dementia, memory problems, things like that.”
But the biggest issue Severance sees right now in the older population is fear.
“Stay away from all the fear mongering in the media,” she said. “Go to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), World Health Organization or trusted media sources. We reinforce the safety measures that will keep people safe.”
Locally, the Siuslaw region is prepared for an outbreak of COVID-19 if it were to occur. PeaceHealth Peace Harbor is constantly monitoring the situation in conjunction with local governments, and contingency plans are in place. Still, there is a responsibility from community members to ensure safety measures are followed to prevent the virus from overtaking the community.
MCR employees stress safety measures.
“Wear a mask, stay home as much as you can, do not having people over and that kind of thing,” Severance said. “We address the fact that it’s very isolating and can be an issue for people. But the telephone is a great way to reach out. I’m surprised by how many elderly people have learned to use Zoom. I think that’s so impressive. We encourage them to have family gatherings through Zoom weekly.”
Ultimately, Severance suggested that everyone will have to judge their own comfort level.
“There is risk,” she said. “Of course, when you’re in a restaurant, you’re going to have to take your mask off to eat. It’s not a perfect answer. If you’re uncomfortable with those situations, I just encourage people not to engage in them. And people who do feel comfortable and feel safe enough with a mask, and following guidelines, then that’s great too.”
However, not everyone is following the guidelines.
On Wednesday, a statewide order went into effect that requires all businesses to enforce customers wear masks while indoors. The day the rule took effect, Siuslaw News received multiple calls from businesses stating pushback, sometimes verbally abusive, toward the new laws.
Even before then, guidelines like masks and social distancing were ignored in some sectors of the community. Historic Old Town Florence was often packed with tourists shoulder to shoulder, while some local businesses didn’t regulate mask wearing among its employees. Even if someone who was at risk was able to turn off the 24 hour news cycle and went outside, they could become afraid by what they see, go back home, and further isolate.
“That’s a problem,” Severance said. “People are required, whether they’re from out of state or not, to be wearing masks. But social distancing, it may mean that people who are really fearful and have health issues, that they avoid places like Old Town where there’s a lot of people and some of them just aren’t going to be compliant. That’s the problem.”
Which then exacerbates the issue of the younger generation. If the older population avoids stores, jobs won’t come back and issues of deteriorating mental health will continue. To help deescalate all of these issues, from suicide to fear, people are going to have to work together.
“We need to come together as a community,” Severance said. “It’s an issue of respect for other people. It’s not just about your own personal choice and your own personal freedom. It’s about respect for other people.”
MCR is recruiting team members — “Anybody with any experience with crisis intervention or counseling, mental health issues, who would be willing to work at least three 24 hours shifts a month and respond at all hours,” Severance said. “We do a lot of training. We’re a very tight team, and we have each other’s backs.”
For more information Siuslaw Outreach Services, visit florencesos.org. Information on the group’s pandemic support can be found at thesiuslawnews.com/article/sos-provides-additional-monetary-support.
More information on Spayd’s Christmas in June can be found at thesiuslawnews.com/article/bringing-christmas-to-june.