Earlier in the week, someone called the state’s COVID-19 mental health support line to talk through their family’s decision to cancel Christmas celebrations amid the rapid spread of the omicron variant.
Rather than disappointment, the hotline director said, the caller felt relief: They’d lost several family members to COVID-19 over the last year and had been dreading trying to replicate family traditions without those loved ones.
“It’s very complicated to talk about those types of emotions,” said Jennifer Battle, director of access for the Harris Center for Mental Health, which operates the hotline. “Being able to provide a safe place where people can say things like that and not be judged … is really powerful.”
The support line has seen a 20% increase in calls since early December, as a new COVID-19 variant began to emerge just in time for the holiday season. Battle said a quarter of callers last week dialed in to talk about holidays, Christmas, vaccines or boosters, according to her analysis.
“Almost every call has to do with anxiety in some way, which is not surprising and has been throughout the whole pandemic,” she said. “The main key for anxiety is uncertainty, and the whole pandemic process is just a whole big bag of uncertainty.”
That uncertainty has ratcheted up in recent weeks as the highly contagious omicron variant has spread rapidly around the country. At a time when many were hoping for a holiday season more like pre-pandemic times, the country is once again dealing with quarantines, closures and canceled travel plans.
Battle said the line is currently receiving about the same number of calls as this time last year — before vaccines were widely available — with callers expressing many of the same feelings of fear, anxiety and isolation. The main difference that the support line staffers have noticed between now and the early pandemic is how many callers are seeking grief support over loved ones lost to the virus.
The line is open 24/7. She said the counselors are trained to listen, empathize and provide some coping strategies that callers can take with them into the future. They can also refer callers to a crisis line or direct them toward substance abuse resources as needed.
The state also offers a text line for people who would prefer not to call, which Battle said she hopes will help the counselors reach more teens.
Since the state opened the hotline in March 2020, counselors have answered more than 20,000 calls.
“We’re so grateful that we’ve been here for all those people,” said Battle. “But it’s also just devastating that we’re still struggling through this crisis, and still having this many people feeling scared and anxious.”