Lingering pandemic impacts mental health in Macon County


Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Pandemic upheaval, fear, and even chaos resulted in 40% of adults struggling with mental health issues by last June, reported Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“Symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States during April–June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019,” the report stated.

By September, Mental Health America’s findings revealed that the number of people looking for help with anxiety and depression has skyrocketed.

Other findings:

– The number of people screening with moderate to severe symptoms of depression and anxiety has continued to increase throughout 2020 and remains higher than rates prior to COVID-19.

– More people are reporting frequent thoughts of suicide and self-harm 

– Young people are struggling most with their mental health.

– People screening at risk for mental health conditions are struggling most with loneliness or isolation.

None of the statistics are news to Meridian Behavioral Health, which has been providing Western North Carolina with child and adult mental health and substance abuse services since 2003. Meridian Behavioral Health Services is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization employing 172.  

“As a result of COVID-19, we have seen a significant increase in behavioral health challenges associated with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse experiences,” commented Candace Burton, Meridian’s Macon County director. “We have seen a number of individuals during COVID-19 who, prior to COVID-19, have not needed or utilized behavioral health services. We have seen an increase in behavioral health challenges for a lot of individuals established in care prior to COVID-19 and a number of other individuals previously served with Meridian in times past, re-enter services during COVID-19.

“For some members in our community, they have experienced increased isolation and other hardships due to a loss of employment, loss of access to a natural support system, or limited access to professional services,” she added.  “For parents and guardians of youth, managing routine responsibilities of work, home, and parenting have been met with additional responsibilities of supporting the virtual educational programming for their children, now at home more often.”

Meridian’s team consists of qualified and licensed medical and behavioral health staff and N.C.-certified peer support specialists who have real-life recovery experiences with mental health and/or drug and alcohol issues, explained Burton. The staff at Meridian has also received extensive training to provide face to face, telephone, and virtual services during COVID-19. 

From March 16, 2020, until the present, Meridian served 487 adults and 356 youth in Macon County. 

“When you think about the total number of individuals served, then consider how many parents, family members, and community partnerships that Meridian supports, the number of lives we have touched during COVID-19 is exponentially larger,” said Burton.

Burton shared additional reasons for the uptick in youth and adults needing Meridian services.

“Pre-COVID, all of us experienced the ups and downs of life; maybe we experienced grieving the loss of loved ones, or encountered financial, employment, housing, medical, relationship, legal, parenting, and other related stressors that brought forth periods of anxiety and depression … While statements such as ‘hopefully this will end soon’ or ‘maybe we will get back to normal soon’ may seem routine and benign in nature to some [since the pandemic began], the reality is that  living in a perpetuating state of unknown without the traditional access to coping outlets can take a toll on the mind, body, and spirit, and lead to unending, sometimes unbearable worry, dread, sense of doom, feelings of helpless and hopelessness, etc.” 

She pointed out that Meridian’s walk-in center has remained operational, while its Recovery Education Center regularly offers a multitude of virtual classes. Plus, the Substance Abuse Intensive Outpatient Program continues to support individuals in their recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.  

The public is encouraged to refer anyone to Meridian who is experiencing concerning mood and behavior changes. 

“There is help available and recovery is possible for anyone,” she said. “Any member of our community, no matter if you have insurance or not, no matter of your financial situation, can access support in the following ways: 

• call our main office at (828) 631-3973 to speak to a live member of our team or leave a voicemail that will be returned as immediately as possible; 

• visit our open access center located at 674 Highlands Road, Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. to initiate services or receive crisis support from a member of our youth and adult services clinical team; 

• visit and leave a general e-mail, responded to 24/7/365 within the same or following business day; 

• call Meridian CARES at 828-339-1552; or if immediate access to a live member of our team is needed Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.”

Overall, Burton stressed that people should reach out to Meridian, if necessary, whether issues are pandemic-related or not. 

“Meridian Behavioral Health Services is blessed to be a part of a strong and compassionate community,” she said. “Despite COVID-19, we remain resilient and readily available to support our community.”