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'COVID-19 changed everything' A look at mental health in 2020

Perhaps one of the biggest calamities of the year, with the impacts likely to be greater in the months and years ahead, we look at the the long term impacts on mental health brought on through the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent government reactions to it. Regional Director Jessica Odermann of Badlands Human Services talks more about this issue.

A woman looks out the window, bearing a mask during the coronavirus pandemic. Isolation was one of the major impacts to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo Illustration by Metro Newspaper Service)

The coronavirus pandemic ushered in a host of interconnected problems across the nation, from financial and social to mental health. Looking back on 2020, it is evident that the impact of isolation, quarantine and social distancing affected many people in ways that are not easily detectible. Close contact vanished, masks took over. What will come in the years ahead, and how has isolation affected the lives of countless in the short and long term?

Addressing those concerns and the subsequent solutions, the Badlands Human Service Center (BHSC) spoke with The Press.

The BHSC remained open throughout the mandates and shutdowns, and they continue to provide behavioral health services for clients across southwestern North Dakota. On an average year, the BHSC serves approximately 1,400 clients in the eight-county region of Adams, Billings, Bowman, Dunn, Hettinger, Golden Valley, Slope and Stark counties, and BHSC Regional Director Jessica Odermann said changes were needed to continue.

“COVID-19 changed everything including how we work, socialize and the school patterns for our children. It left many of us uncertain about the future and because of distancing, many of us have at times felt alone,” Odermann said. “As a result, we have learned new ways of interacting that have created unique memories too.”


Regional Director Jessica Odermann of the Badlands Human Service Center, pictured above, notes that the center has continued to provide behavioral health services to the eight-county region of Adams, Billings, Bowman, Dunn, Hettinger, Golden Valley, Slope and Stark counties. (Dickinson Press File Photo)

When the COVID-19 crisis hit North Dakota, data from the North Dakota Department of Human Services did not show any evidence to “substantiate an increase in demand for behavioral health services related to COVID-19,” Odermann remarked, explaining that demand for behavioral health services indicated the number of clients seeking care but not necessarily the number of those in need.

To continue providing its services to the eight-county region in a safe manner, the BHSC followed protocols and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Dakota Department of Health by implementing screening protocols, staff training on use of personal protective equipment and appropriate social distancing and disinfection practices within the center, Odermann noted.

“Many of our group therapies moved to telehealth; however, we recently transitioned back to in-person group therapy. We found that many of our most vulnerable clients don’t have the means or ability to connect using technology,” she said, adding, “In-person, face-to-face connection is a critically important piece to meaningful and effective treatment and recovery for many of our clients. We had to meet them where they were and so we made that change and it’s been very positive.”

The BHSC provides a wide service array to a priority set of individuals such as those living with a serious mental illness (SMI) or dual diagnosed, including substance use disorder or SMI; intravenous drug users or pregnant and using illicit substances; severe emotionally disturbed youth — diagnosable mental, behavioral or emotional disorder in children and youth that result in functional impairment that substantially interfered with or limited the child’s or youth’s role or functioning in family, school or community activities.

Services range from crisis behavioral health, assessment and referral, rehabilitation and recovery to medication prescription and medication management, Odermann continued. Crisis behavioral health services entail community-based crisis response, walk-in assessments, crisis psychotherapy and emergency placements when needed. Assessment and referral services include court-ordered assessments and diagnostic assessments that are available on a walk-in basis. Services of rehabilitation and recovery comprise of psychotherapy (individual and group), substance use disorder counseling, case management, skills training and integration, care coordination, supported employment, supported housing and peer support.

In one of the most rural parts of the United States, western North Dakota is limited by distance, which makes it difficult for individuals seeking behavioral health care who live in remote areas, Odermann said.

“There are most certainly gaps in services for both mental health and substance use disorder services in this region, especially due to the region's rural nature. Many people don’t have transportation to travel to Dickinson for services,” Odermann noted. “To help address those barriers, our staff travel throughout the region to meet with individuals and families in their own homes and communities. We also provide telehealth services to many of our rural clients, as do many other existing community-based providers.


“Even with telehealth being provided, however, there is still a need for more community-based providers in this region; providers that offer services along the full continuum of care to individuals with a wide variety of behavioral health needs.”

Isolation and quarantine may continue as coronavirus cases fluctuate with the new year, but it’s important for people to bond together during these challenging times, Odermann reflected.

“There is a difference between social distancing and the physical distancing we do to stay safe during the pandemic. It is still possible to maintain social connection even when we have to be physically apart. We need to find new and creative ways to connect with people and to stay involved with our hobbies and coping skills that are so important to our mental health. To maintain those social connections, it is also important to check in with people you haven’t heard from in a while,” she said.

Behavioral health resources and COVID-19 resources are available from the North Dakota Department of Human Services’ Behavioral Health Division website at behavioralhealth.nd.gov. Parents Lead offers COVID-19 resources that can help provide support during the pandemic for parents, community members and professionals and can be located at parentslead.org. Individuals can also follow the Behavioral Health Division on Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels or Parents Lead on Facebook and other social sites.

Health care, law enforcement, schools or other community-based service providers are able to refer individuals to the BHSC or people can also reach out directly by calling or a walk-in visit. Odermann said that the center provides open access for screening, assessment and referral to services either at the BHSC or “to other community-based services, if appropriate.” Open access includes walk-in service, where no appointment is required and it is available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. MT Monday through Friday.

Individuals can also call 2-1-1 to reach a 24-hour crisis line to speak to someone who can provide support and referral or dispatch a BHSC mobile crisis worker who will respond directly to the crisis in the community at any time. Those in need of short-term crisis stabilization may be referred to our local Crisis Stabilization Unit, Odermann added.

If you or someone you know is struggling, call the BHSC at 701-227-7500 or call 2-1-1 to reach the crisis line that is operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


Working from home, isolated from others was one of the major impacts to the coronavirus pandemic in which people struggled to cope with the new norm. (File Photo)

Jackie Jahfetson is a former reporter for The Dickinson Press.
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