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Crisis Hotlines See Spike In Calls As Anxiety And Fear About Pandemic Grows


The stress in this country is palpable. We're all worrying about our health, the economy, school cancellations, jobs, what the future holds. With so many people now staying home and teleworking, there are concerns about the mental health of workers, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Anxiety - it pervades this coronavirus era. Our sense of threat is heightened. And that has Monica Miller (ph) feeling familiar pangs.

MONICA MILLER: Tightness in the chest, pressure. It can also literally feel like a closing end of the vision, like the waves of fear that come and then subside and then come again.

NOGUCHI: Miller is a single working mother of two young children. They're all confined to their Sausalito, Calif., home. The realities of life during coronavirus settled in last week.

MILLER: And how I was going to handle working from home with them really panicked me.

NOGUCHI: Miller, who works in public relations, leveled with her boss.

MILLER: I had to explain. Listen. I may have a child that comes in the room crying when I'm supposed to be on a client call.

NOGUCHI: But she has lots of other concerns. She worries about getting exposed at the grocery store and keeping her kids' schooling on track. Now Miller is considering resuming medications and therapy she leaned on years ago.

MILLER: I have a feeling that I'm not alone in that.

NOGUCHI: The normal patterns of life have collapsed. Millions of workers have been thrown into economic uncertainty. Their stresses are worse because of any number of other factors - a business in shambles, elderly relatives, having young kids and no child care. On top of that, intense isolation could hurt those already struggling with loneliness, addiction and depression. Elinore McCance-Katz is assistant secretary of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

ELINORE MCCANCE-KATZ: We're starting to see some increase in the use of some of our disaster distress helplines, our suicide prevention lifelines.

NOGUCHI: McCance-Katz says the agency will staff up to handle the anticipated volume. Jaime-Alexis Fowler is founder of Empower Work, a crisis hotline for workplace issues. She says last week alone, the number of incoming texts and calls increased 200%.

JAIME-ALEXIS FOWLER: The No. 1 concern is mental health - so stress from fear of job loss to, how are they going to take care of their finances?

NOGUCHI: It's a stressful time, even for those who aren't normally anxious. Stephanie Barnes (ph) describes herself as usually pretty peppy. But the last two weeks delivered a series of gut punches.

STEPHANIE BARNES: I mean, it has been very stressful.

NOGUCHI: Barnes loves her job as a substitute teacher in Columbus, Ohio. But the school shutdown touched off a cascade of trouble for her. She's not getting paid. She has a pile of bills. The website for unemployment benefits went down. And that's not all.

BARNES: My birthday already got canceled. And then the next week, I developed symptoms of the coronavirus.

NOGUCHI: Last weekend as she awaited the results, her anxiety went into overdrive.

BARNES: Both waiting for my test results I - you know, I was checking it and checking it and checking it. And, you know, just being isolated and not having any human contact...

NOGUCHI: She tried to fill a prescription for anxiety medication. The pharmacy was sold out. So Barnes called a few friends to vent, which lifted her spirits. Now she's trying to hold on to that.

BARNES: I just try to look forward to the future and remember that this is not going to last forever.

NOGUCHI: Last night, she said, she tested positive for the virus. She says initial sadness and concern has turned to relief. At least now she knows. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.