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'More people seeking care:' Mental health experts discuss response during pandemic

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner says they are seeing about a 15% increase in suicides compared to this time last year. 

"Recently we have investigated four suicides related to COVID - three people who lost their jobs committed suicide, and one man who had his in-person therapy sessions changed to phone calls due to social distancing requirements committed suicide," said Karen Domagalski, operations manager of the medical examiner's office. 

Domagalski said all appeared to have underlying mental health challenges. 

"If you look at just the science behind suicides, one of the major contributors is loss of employment, especially for males, and so a lot of times if you add that together with what we're seeing on the alcohol and drug side -- cause remember we've got some substance abuse issues that are now going unchecked," said Karen Fischer, program manager at Christian Family Solutions counseling services. 

Fischer says people with preexisting mental health conditions are having more symptoms. 

"Just because it's such a change in trying to make sense of all of these uncertainties. When you have a challenge like depression or anxiety it makes it kind of that much harder to think through it all," she said. 

Christian Family Solutions is offering video counseling right now.  Fischer says they've also had new clients use that service. 

"Some folks are maybe reaching out new to us based on the fact that this is overwhelming and they start to feel pretty helpless," she said. 

"I most definitely believe that there are more people seeking care during the pandemic," said John Chianelli, Vice President of Whole Health Clinical Group, which provides outpatient and housing services and operates two crisis resource centers for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

They are also using telehealth and telepsychiatry to help people with mental illness and substance abuse issues. 

"I am grateful to our passionate staff. They, too, are heroes, as they support people's emotional well-being."

Chianelli says getting connected and staying connected with a treatment provider during this time is critical. 

He says to watch out for increased sadness, confusion, feeling angry, and a reduced ability to concentrate. 

"Being able to share that with a loved one or with a therapist or doctor," he said, "That will also help decrease the fear that many people are experiencing throughout our community."

"That isolation is a breeding ground for anxiety and depression and just the stressors that this has caused unemployment, childcare, personal finances, you know, really adds a lot of gas to that fire," said Bradley Riemann, chief clinical officer for Rogers Behavioral Health. 

At Rogers Behavior Health they converted roughly 900 patients a day from daily face-to-face treatment to video. 

"Certainly the demand for our services, problems don't take a vacation during the pandemic so the same number of people who are suffering before this are suffering now," said Riemann. 

Riemann says to take any signs or comments that a loved one may be making seriously and to encourage them to reach out for help as well. 

"For someone who has difficulty in these areas before or someone who may be predisposed for these areas, it's even more challenging for them than it is for most," he said. 

Riemann says it's important to connect with support systems, even online. 

"We can still connect with people via the telephone or Facebook," he said. 

Stay active and continue doing daily tasks. 

"You can get a sense of accomplishment from doing those things," said Riemann. 

He said to engage in things that are enjoyable, get proper sleep, focus on diet and exercise, and if someone needs help, reach out. 

"They need to reach out, they need to seek help."

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