The Pandemic’s Impact: Mental Health Field Facing Challenges

Karen Wheeler, CEO of Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc., addresses the issue of mental health during Good Shepherd Health Care System's annual Community Meeting.

The COVID pandemic has made behavioral health and mental wellness a hot topic and put an exclamation point on the need for improved services.

That was the message delivered Wednesday night by Karen Wheeler during Good Shepherd Health Care System’s fifth annual Community Meeting that was held virtually.

Wheeler is the CEO of Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc., a nonprofit that administers behavioral health services throughout 12 rural Eastern Oregon counties and tribal nations.

(SEE ALSO: Good Shepherd CEO Highlights Past Year’s Accomplishments)

Many factors influence mental and physical health.

“All of us have biological and psychological characteristics that make us vulnerable or resilient in the face of potential behavioral health conditions,” said Wheeler. Those factors include our families, communities, schools, workplaces, peer groups and individual factors such as genetic predisposition, positive self-image, self-control, and others.  Outside factors such as global events have an impact on mental health. Early life experiences have a life-long impact on adult physical and behavioral health.

“Children are born learning,” said Wheeler. “Nurturing environments and quality early learning help set up a foundation for life success.”

Wheeler said the sudden and significant changes in work and school routines during the pandemic resulted in many suffering from a variety of symptoms.

“Isolation and loneliness, grief, anxiety, depression, alcohol and substance misuse and stress-related symptoms are all on the rise,” she said.

Of particular concern is the impact the pandemic has had on children’s education. Test scores have fallen 9 percent at the state level since the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic has also had severe impacts on health care professionals.

“Health care workers on the frontline continue to experience burnout and compassion fatigue,” said Wheeler, adding that there are more than 120 vacancies in the Eastern Oregon mental health system.

Decades of underfunding in the behavioral health system have impacted the ability to serve Oregonians with behavioral health needs, especially children. Services for non-English speaking people are woefully inadequate, she said.

A recent report showed more than 12,000 in Umatilla County needed but did not receive services for substance abuse disorders in the past year.

Other factors impacting mental health services include outdated policies dating back to the 1970s and 1980s that fail to spell out roles of the state, county, and providers. Wheeler said there, too, remains a stigma attached to mental health issues that often keep people from seeking treatment until the condition becomes chronic.

There are, however, hopeful developments in increasing access to mental health and related services.

As of July 1, people in Oregon who meet income requirements and who did not previously qualify for Oregon Health plan benefits due to immigration status and are between ages of 19-25 or above 55 are now eligible for full benefits.

In addition, said Wheeler, the Oregon Health Authority is rolling out a basic health plan for those making more than 138% of federal poverty level. In September, the federal government approved Oregon’s new five-year Medicaid 1115 demonstration waiver. A total of $1.1 billion of new funding will support additional flexibility in spending of state and federal Medicaid dollars on health-related social needs such as food, housing and climate-related programs for people and families experiencing critical life transitions.

Investing early in behavioral health programs for children pays off significantly with factors associated with productivity, employment, incarceration, crime, and incidence of disease.

Getting things right early in life matters, said Wheeler.

“Investing early in behavioral health programs for children pays off significantly with factors associated with productivity, employment, incarceration, crime, and incidence of disease,” she said.