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By David R. Shorey, East County Program Manager, Institute for Public Strategies


May 7, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) -- We are all going through a lot. I can say that beyond just concern about the possibility of being infected with COVID-19, I worry about my friends and family. Add on the stress of financial issues, taking care of children or other family members, and just the general uncertainty of the future and I know that many are emotionally drained. 

Depression, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), addiction, and bipolar disorder, among many other conditions, can all intensify because of the stress the pandemic creates. While our mental health today is just as important as our physical health, many choose not to get help because of one overriding factor: stigma.


Stigma has such a large impact on treatment that the U.S. Surgeon General has identified it as the biggest health threat facing Americans today. With May being observed as National Mental Health Awareness Month, now is the perfect time to focus on stigma and turn the tide away from shame and embarrassment. 


Mental health professionals say pandemic stay-at-home orders make this challenge even more daunting. The National Alliance of Mental Health (NAMI) San Diego is doing everything it can to help East County residents through these trying times by offering an array of online and telephonic services and support.


The annual Mental Health Month observance began in 1949 by Mental Health America. The U.S Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a partner in the outreach effort.


Pandemic Changes to Mental Health


Photo credit: NAMI San Diego


COVID-19 is changing the dynamic everywhere we look, according to Suzette Southfox, the director of education at NAMI San Diego.


“I have heard from professionals that people who are living with a mental health condition are not showing up to appointments nor picking up needed prescriptions,” Southfox said. “To compound that, because we are all staying at home, depression and anxiety are now experienced by everyone – not just those living with mental health conditions.”


This is also affecting the families and others around those who are diagnosed.


Photo credit: NAMI San Diego


A whopping 90% of adolescents with a substance use disorder (SUD) had a mental health condition, while 18% with a mental health condition also had a SUD, according to a SAMHSA report. Many are seeking relief and might end up with an unplanned dependency. Either way, help and support are available.


“We will never shame you, judge you or preach at you to quit, but we will help you find resources when you are ready,” Southfox said.


Help is Available


Photo credit: NAMI San Diego


The NAMI San Diego Facebook page is kept current with upcoming online events, support group meetings and mental health services. In-person events will continue after the stay-at-home order is lifted. Organized Support Companion in an Emergency Situation (OscER) is an app that can be downloaded on a smart phone. There is even a mental health app for youth called OscERJr. The NAMI San Diego Helpline can be reached at (800) 523-5933.


“We have a population that is already at risk and now they are more at risk,” Southfox said. “They are having difficulty accessing treatment and medications, so we have turned to telephone and video conferencing to support individuals instead of one-on-one, in-person visits.”


The demand for these services is on the increase as more people turn to alcohol and other substances while staying at home. COVID-19 has caused a dramatic shift in delivering services.


Alcohol and Drug Use 


Photo credit: NAMI San Diego


According to a Nielsen survey, online alcohol sales increased 243% in the third week of March, with total alcohol sales increasing by 55%. Last year saw a decrease in overall alcohol sales. But if the current COVID-19 induced sales numbers continue, that trend will be reversed.


Marijuana sales have seen an increase as well. California has even identified dispensaries as essential businesses. Given the impact that smoking marijuana has on the lungs and the potential to worsen COVID-19 effects, what may be seen as a potential stress relief may in actuality have deadly consequences. 


Alcohol, marijuana and other mind-altering substances may worsen mental health conditions and thus make it harder for those attempting to cope with the emotional effects of COVID-19.


Harm prevention organizations like IPS, NAMI and others are actively working to make sure folks are aware of the impact that these substances can have on physical and mental health. Our efforts have adapted to the COVID-19 environment and we are reaching out to community members through digital and print media.


Take Care of Your Mental Health


I hope that by raising awareness of these impacts, we will be more mindful of the decisions we make around  alcohol and other drugs not, just during COVID-19, but also beyond the current pandemic. Anyone interested in working on this topic can contact me directly at or via phone at (619) 476-9100 x109.


Mental health is just as important as our physical health. Seeking treatment and care is essential for wellness. COVID-19 has taken a lot away from us, but it hasn’t taken away our ability to get help. 


Please be well and take care of yourself. For more information and resources, visit the Up to Us San Diego website and the County of San Diego Behavioral Health Services May is Mental Health Month campaign page.