Greensburg resident John Herman has a dinner schedule every Thursday at the town’s Otterbein United Methodist Church.
Helping to provide food to those in need at the weekly Holy Spirit Feeding program there helps him in his efforts to establish and maintain positive relationships in the community.
Herman, 66, said when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder three decades ago, it made him feel different from others.
“I thought I was the only one with this,” he said. “I was very lonely. I don’t know where to turn or really understand what’s going on.
A new epidemic of loneliness and isolation is affecting many more people across the country, with significant implications for physical and mental health, according to a recent report. Advice Presented by US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.
About half of American adults experience some measurable level of loneliness, said Murty, who released the report in May for Mental Health Awareness Month.
Among the possible consequences of poor or inadequate relationships with others are a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease, a 32 percent increased risk of stroke and a 50 percent increased risk of dementia in the elderly, he said. Lack of social contact increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%, reports Murthy.
Among adults who report feeling lonely often, the risk of depression is twice as high as those who rarely or never feel lonely, they said.
Many who seek help for mental health issues are experiencing depression and anxiety, says clinical psychologist Lisa McKay. She oversees the outpatient department of the Family Counseling Center of Armstrong County in the Leechburg and Kittanning offices.
“The more depressed you are, the harder it is to motivate yourself to meet people and go out, the more certain you are that other people are judging you or thinking negative things about you,” says McKay. “This makes it more difficult to get out there. It will be a negative snowball.
According to local experts who emphasize the link between mental health and physical health, it was important for Murthy to sound the alarm about the harmful effects of isolation on health.
Heather McLean, a Greensburg-based non-profit for mental health in Southwest PA, leads several support groups for people experiencing a variety of issues, including those who have attempted suicide or are supporting a loved one with mental illness.
Conversations between group participants reveal a common theme. “If their emotional health is not good, their physical health is not good,” McLean said. “They have stomach or back problems, they may feel dizzy or tired. There is a big connection between loneliness and fatigue. It’s like a snowball effect; It just adds up.”
“With depression, you can lose motivation to take care of yourself and be more proactive about your health,” said Patty Lewis, director of behavioral health at Westmoreland County-based Ecla Health, now part of Liberty Health System. “This can really lead to problems.”
Missed doctor’s appointments can increase your risk of developing heart problems or diabetes, she said.
Mental and behavioral health professionals recognize that feelings of isolation and loneliness are among the factors that affect their clients. But those issues came to the fore with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic and the initial restrictions on physical activity.
“The pandemic really took a toll on us,” McLean said.
Before the outbreak, being alone at home could be a source of stress for the elderly, McLean said.
“Now it’s upside down,” she said. “There’s an anxiety that places have to go.”
Although the epidemic is mild, “there are many elderly people who have never really left their homes.” It was very difficult for them to integrate into society. Some are still afraid of getting sick.
A 2019 study Published online in the National Library of Medicine, patients with severe mental illness die 10 to 20 years earlier than the general population. That study focused on more than 800 mental health patients in the Netherlands with chronic health conditions and functional disabilities receiving long-term care or in psychiatric hospitals.
Laurie Barnett Levine, CEO of Mental Health America of Southwest PA, cited factors that contribute to such early deaths.
“There can be physical health issues, smoking, other lifestyle factors, medications you may be taking,” she says. “They also experience loneliness and isolation. They often find it difficult to maintain social relationships.
The ever-increasing demand for mental health services; Suicide numbers In Westmoreland County, it rose to 62 last year. Of those suicides, the largest number, 15, occurred among people aged 51-60, with one each in the 16-20 and over 91 age brackets.
Herman speaks openly about his mental health experiences and has become an advocate for others facing similar challenges. Survivors of multiple suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts say that the growing social network they created gave them extra motivation to overcome these thoughts.
According to the National Institutes of Health, bipolar disorder causes abnormal changes in a person’s mood, energy, activity level, and concentration that make it difficult to perform daily tasks.
When Herman learned of a conference on the topic, he said, “He saw other people around me with the same pain. I wasn’t the only one.”
“How many people would you touch if you did this?’ I thought to myself. “He said. I know thousands of people in Westmoreland County and the state. It’s going to have a big impact on a lot of people. It just blew me away.”
While demand for mental health services is increasing, staffing for most services has not kept pace.
The Family Counseling Center of Armstrong County has grown over the past 15 years, seeing its outpatient staff expand from about eight therapists to nearly 50, McKay said.
Still, “our waiting list is as long as it is,” she said, with about 200 patients lined up to see a therapist at last count.
“The biggest issue we face is staffing,” said Gretchen Kelly, legislative affairs committee chair for the Association of Human Service Agencies, a nonprofit that provides behavioral health services in Allegheny County.
“We just couldn’t get enough staff to run our programs,” said Kelly, who said human service organizations have been unable to match the wage increases offered by major retailers. “This creates waiting lists and gaps in services for children and adults who need these services most.”
Many organizations advocate for increased government funding to help close this gap.
Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro has proposed a nearly $20 million increase in Pennsylvania’s 2023-24 budget for county-run safety-net mental health services. But, as Associated PressIn the year That may not be enough for counties that say they are making the same amount of state aid they received in 2012.
Awareness and understanding
Meanwhile, service providers are working to raise awareness of mental health issues and encourage those who need it to seek help.
According to Lewis, “Two-thirds of people with mental health problems do not seek treatment. Of those who seek treatment, only 75 percent complete it.
“One in four individuals will be affected by mental illness in any given year,” Levin said. “People think of a stereotype, but it’s not always what you think. It could be your friend or your neighbor.
“These are people who go to work every day, but they may have depression or anxiety or bipolar issues, and when they come home they’re lonely.”
Communication with others is key, McLean said.
“We don’t want to say we need help because we don’t want people to know we’re vulnerable and therefore we don’t need it,” she said. “The more people talk about it, the more it breaks that stigma. We need to realize that there are many people who feel lonely, and we need to start talking about it.
“They’ve spent a lot of energy and time encouraging people to get back into their communities as the epidemic eases, so they can get back out and restart themselves,” said Sue Coyle, president of the Allegheny Vendors Conference. “Finding out how to do that has been a bit difficult. Getting people to go out and do activities that reduce loneliness has become more challenging.”
“We’re all social creatures,” said Dillon Stein, director of palliative care at Butler Health System, now part of Liberty Health System. “If people are isolated, it increases their risk of becoming unhealthy. We’re seeing the downstream effects that should have happened during the epidemic.”
“It took me at least 15 years to admit I had a disorder,” said Herman, who was institutionalized for five years as a youth and was diagnosed without bipolar disorder until age 31.
He likens his disorder to a roller coaster.
Herman says high energy and afternoon wakefulness alternate with extreme fatigue and sleepiness, a cycle that sometimes includes hospital stays.
“I was doing weird things, and I was thinking about hurting myself,” he said.
Finding the right combination of drugs to prevent chemical imbalances in their system is key to controlling the disease, he said.
“Then everything started to fall into place,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of friends because I’m calm.”
Herman has shared his story at training sessions offered by several county crisis intervention teams. The sessions are designed to better prepare first responders to deal with those with mental health issues.
“I’ve talked about it a lot,” Herman said of his experiences. “The most important thing to me is if I can make a difference in someone’s life.”
He is active with other organizations, including the Pennsylvania Mental Health Planning Council and the Rays of Hope Westmoreland County Suicide Awareness and Prevention Task Force.
Participating in Ray of Hope outreach events, Herman said he is empathetic to others struggling with mental health issues and may want to talk to someone who can empathize.
“Been there, done that,” he said. “The most important thing to know is that you are not alone. It’s okay not to be okay.”
Jeff Himmler is a staff writer for the Tribune Review. You can contact Jeff by email. firstname.lastname@example.org Or via Twitter .