Megan Amaya, a board member for NAMI Snohomish County, a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Megan Amaya, a board member for NAMI Snohomish County, a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

As pandemic drags on, mental health clients, services adapt

Isolation can be especially hard on people with mental illness. Here’s who to call in Snohomish County.

EVERETT — A few years ago, Megan Amaya left her friends, family and successful hair salon to live on the streets for what, at the time, seemed to be no reason.

She had never been in trouble before but was arrested three times that month. The last time, police picked her up outside an Everett convenience store.

In jail, a mental health professional looked up Amaya on Facebook.

“She found my page where I looked all done up and normal,” Amaya said. “She comes to my cell and is like, ‘Is this you?’”

On April 27, 2017, Amaya was diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder while behind bars.

Amaya, 33, has now been sober for nearly two years and focuses most of her time on mental health advocacy. She serves on the board for NAMI Snohomish County, a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She lives in Lynnwood.

She has struggled with her mental health during the governor’s stay-home order. At times she has thought about picking up a bottle of wine to try and relax, but hasn’t.

“That crazy urge to make that decision won’t last forever,” she said. “Once it kind of passes you realize how proud of yourself you are that you didn’t make that decision.”

The pandemic has likely taken a toll on many people’s mental health, whether they have a mental illness or not.

Those who need help have options. Crisis lines, urgent care and online support groups are available. Mental health experts also offer tips to reduce anxiety.

For Amaya, exercise helps ease negative thoughts and feelings. Now that the gym is closed, she has started to work out at home and take long walks.

She also has turned to social media, where she has built connections with a large following. She runs an Instagram account called The Mind Bar, where she shares her thoughts and experiences with sobriety and mental illness. She also lives with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Amaya and the rest of the NAMI Snohomish County board members meet regularly, now through video.

At a recent meeting, Amaya mentioned many people are experiencing forced isolation for the first time — something that’s a part of daily life for many people who have mental illness.

That idea stuck with board president Keith Binkley.

“She said, ‘You know I feel like everybody is getting what it’s like for many of us,’” Binkley said. “I think everybody’s mental health is really being challenged at this time.”

Support groups through NAMI Snohomish County have been cancelled, but Binkley hopes to begin online sessions in coming weeks. Resources are also available on the group’s website and Facebook page, and through other nearby chapters.

Volunteers of America runs a crisis phone line and messaging platform that are both available 24 hours a day.

So far, not many more people than usual are using these services, said Pat Morris, senior director of behavioral health at Volunteers of America Western Washington.

“We haven’t seen a huge uptick, but we anticipate we will continue to see more as people are starting to feel there is no end in sight,” she said.

Morris encourages people to seek help before they begin to feel hopeless. Usually, about 60% of people report feeling suicidal by the time they reach out.

If you need help, call 800-584-3578 or visit imhurting.org.

The Trevor Project also provides 24/7 crisis options and other resources for LGBTQ+ youth, including a phone line and online chat service, plus confidential text messaging.

Visit thetrevorproject.org/get-help-now for more information.

Morris has worked in the behavioral health field for 40 years but has never seen this many people affected at once.

“It’s the first time in my history that it can touch each and every one of us,” she said. “I think that’s what makes this so anxiety-provoking and unique.”

At Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, the behavioral health urgent care center is still open for walk-in visits, located near the hospital’s emergency department. The clinic is available to adults 18 years and older who are experiencing a mental health emergency.

Behavioral health director Laura Knapp recommends calling first to see how long the wait is. Virtual therapy is also available for those who may not be able to visit the clinic. Call 425-261-4210 for more information.

The urgent care center opened in late 2019. The number of patients varies each day and has not gone up as the pandemic has progressed, Knapp said. She expects to see a surge of people in the coming months.

“I think we are noticing a hesitation for people to come in and get help, which always worries us,” she said. “The individuals we are seeing, we are seeing a lot of anxiety, and I think just considering the environment around us, that is absolutely to be expected.”

To help ease those feelings, she suggests exercising at home, connecting with loved ones and limiting media exposure. That might mean setting aside 15 minutes a day to get caught up with news from reliable sources.

In some cases, in-person therapy may have been put on hold as psychologists moved to video sessions.

Mill Creek Family Services usually provides counseling at two locations, in Mill Creek and Everett. But by the end of March, the entire staff of about 30 started to work only online through video therapy, executive director Ken Urie said.

The group was already setting up a virtual option at the time, and that’s why they were able to make the switch so quickly. Research has shown that online therapy can be just as helpful as in-person therapy, Urie said.

Not all insurance companies covered video therapy by that time, but the counseling center has worked with patients to make sure they can afford care, said Tara Yarte, therapist and professional development director for Mill Creek Family Services.

At first, Yarte was nervous to see patients virtually but now feels she has been able to connect with them in different ways than before.

She has been introduced to pets, and younger clients have enjoyed showing off their rooms or favorite stuffed animals.

“In terms of being able to do the work we do as therapists, it has gone very smoothly,” she said.

Compass Health is one of the largest behavioral healthcare agencies in Western Washington, with about 20,000 clients in five counties.

Around 5,000 receive outpatient care in Snohomish County. Many more use other kinds of urgent care services, such as the Snohomish County Triage Center in Everett that provides psychiatric services 24 hours a day.

So far Compass Health has moved 62% of its services online, possibly with more on the way, CEO Tom Sebastian said.

Compass Health is open to everyone but mostly works with those who use Medicaid.

“Our core focus and mission as an organization has been primarily on the lowest-income community members with the most complex needs,” he said.

The agency is still providing in-person appointments when necessary for people who may not have access to a computer or telephone, said Megan Boyle, director of children’s intensive services.

With kids home from school, Boyle’s team has been working to serve youth and families who don’t have the same structure they’re used to.

It’s been a big help for Elizabeth Christiansen and her 11-year-old son, who was referred to Compass Health about nine months ago for anxiety and depression. They live in Granite Falls.

For the past month or so the boy has been talking on the phone with his usual team, which includes a mentor and a therapist.

So far he’s been talking to them on the phone, with shorter but more frequent sessions than usual so he can stay focused. They don’t usually talk though video, but he’s excited for that to begin, Christiansen said.

Speaking with his counselors has helped relieve the boy’s anxiety during this unusual time.

“It’s a very scary thing,” Christiansen said. “Being able to talk to people who have his mental health in mind has been a lifesaver.”

Stephanie Davey: 425-339-3192; sdavey@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @stephrdavey.

Find help

• To talk with a mental health professional immediately, call the crisis line at 800-584-3578 or visit imhurting.org to chat.

• The Trevor Project provides a crisis line that focuses on helping LGBTQ+ youth. Call 866-488-7386, text START to 678678, or visit thetrevorproject.org/get-help-now to chat.• Providence Regional Medical Center Everett’s behavioral urgent care center is open to walk-in visits. Call 425-261-4210 for more information.

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