A sign for suicide prevention is shown at a Center City train platform in Philadelphia.

Whatever was weighing you down before March 2020, the virus provided a stark reminder that things can always get worse. And so it remains.

In the almost two years since the first U.S. resident fell to COVID-19, the number of people who say they’ve experienced a mental health crisis has skyrocketed.

Calls and texts to Colorado Crisis Services’ hotline jumped by about 20% in the spring of 2020, before reaching a then-all-time high of more than 21,000 that fall.

One year later, an official report confirmed that, like the virus, the bleakness wasn’t a blip.

The 2021 Colorado Health Access Survey found that more residents than ever before, especially young adults, said they faced mental health “challenges.” At the same time, fewer were going to the doctor, for psychological or physical complaints.

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“If it weren’t for, at least initially, being able to see my clients virtually, I really hate to think of what might have happened – for them, not having services when they needed them most,” said Colorado Springs licensed clinical social worker Jackie Melin, who owns Peak Healing Services.

The push to raise awareness about mental health needs – and get those in crisis to the right voices and resources – gained new momentum last week with the announcement that, thanks to $282 million in federal funding, a nationwide 988 suicide hotline should be up and running by July 2022.

Congress designated the phone shortcut last year, alongside the plan to transition a 10-digit hotline operated by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration into a national network of 24-hour crisis call centers offering free, confidential support.

“The 988 code is a first step toward transforming crisis care in this country, creating a universal entry point to needed crisis services in line with access to other emergency medical services,” according to a statement from HHS.

It’s hoped that being able to dial three digits to access immediate mental health help -- as we do emergency services through 911 – not only will drive down suicide rates but change how Americans view, treat and talk about psychological health.

But that discussion is especially complex right now, say mental health and grief support workers. Some say a critical component is missing from the big-picture and grassroots conversations, a component that not only would help people understand what they’re feeling, but route them to the best provider - or group of peers - to help them heal.

“More people are reaching out for help … (but) I think what’s driving this sense of crisis is that people don’t know where to go for good support for grief,” said Sarah Lee, a chaplaincy intern and grief support specialist in Colorado Springs.

Any port during a storm is better than adrift in a bottomless sea. But while the symptoms of depression and grief may look similar, they’re not the same – and neither is the “treatment,” Lee said.

Depression is a diagnosable psychological condition, a chemical imbalance. Grief, however, is a “normal response” to something bad that’s occurred in life – loss, of a loved one, a way of life.

In other words, a normal response to pandemic times.

“Some families have lost multiple loved ones. Because, as we know, the virus tends to be transmitted among those close family and friend groups,” Lee said. “People have lost jobs…and all of us have lost big parts of what our lives used to be.”

Such losses certainly can trigger deep sadness, but it still rides the surface in people whose biochemistry is functioning as it should, Lee said. For someone who is clinically depressed, the clouds rarely break. The rituals of life – making breakfast, walking the dog - feel impossible.

Those who are grieving a loss might still find themselves out to lunch with friends and laughing at a joke.

If they still feel comfortable enough to go out with friends, that is.

“A big part of this crisis, for a lot of people, is the loss of those social support networks that helped us make sense of what we’re feeling, and to move through it,” Lee said. “For a lot of people, that was also how they dealt with stress, how they were able to handle a lot of the things in their lives before the pandemic.”

Colorado Springs didn’t have enough mental health care providers to meet growing needs before the pandemic.

Ditto for grief support care.

One local group, however, is hoping its efforts to raise awareness about grief and the wide-ranging impacts will help change that landscape.

“The culture that we live in right now says it’s not OK to talk about it – oh, just get over it – but talking about grief is what we need to move it,” said Kathy Sparnins, a grief support group leader and founder of Voices of Grief. “I do think grief support services in Colorado Springs have been fairly random…” and not nearly what she believes is needed to address what’s happening on a cultural level.

Sparnins’ nonprofit is working with local providers – including Melin and the Lydia Hill Institute for Human Resilience at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs – on an anonymous survey seeking insights from both residents and the front-line workers who swoop in when a crisis occurs. The questionnaires are due to go live in January.

Their goal: assess the level of grief in the community, and ideally consolidate and build on the groundswell of support for a stand-alone Springs center where groups can meet, and heal.

“What everyone is living through right now … this is the definition of complicated grief ... but it's still grief," Sparnins said. "The only way we move through grief is we have to reconcile it. You don’t get over it. You move in it and through it.”

The first step is acknowledging that it will end, even if we can't see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The next? Finding the right companions who will spur us on that journey.

"Everything feels like it's especially divided right now, but finding that space where we feel comfortable, with people we trust and where we can talk about our grief, is so, so critical," Sparnins said. "Grief is not depression, but when we don't address our grief it can become chronic and fundamentally change the person we thought we were, and our relationships with everyone around us."


Stephanie Earls is a news reporter and columnist at The Gazette. Before moving to Colorado Springs in 2012, she worked for newspapers in upstate NY, WA, OR and at her hometown weekly in Berkeley Springs, WV, where she got her start in journalism.

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