ASSMCA administrator: ‘We are living in hard times; our emotional state has been rattled’

Mental health services chief says PAS emergency line has received more than 200,000 phone calls related to COVID-19 since March

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

As more than six months have gone by since the COVID-19 pandemic emergency was declared, it’s reasonable to ask how Puerto Ricans’ mental health has been affected as the disease caused by the coronavirus has plunged the island into an economic recession and led citizens to abruptly readapt their daily routines for both their families’ and their own safety.

Mental Health & Anti-Addiction Services Administration (ASSMCA by its Spanish initials) Administrator Suzanne Roig Fuertes spoke recently to the Star about how the global pandemic has affected citizen’s emotional state and how the administration’s PAS hotline has received more phone calls than it received after Hurricane Maria.

“On Friday, we received 6,854 phone calls. When we compare it to the period after the passing of Hurricane Maria, to be specific, five months after that atmospheric event, the most phone calls we got to our hotline was around 1,000 in a day,” Roig Fuertes said. “When you see that we got over 6,000 phone calls in one day, you can prove that citizens’ emotional health has been disrupted. We are living in hard times; our emotional state has been rattled.”

The ASSMCA chief also told the Star that the pandemic and other unexpected events such as the earthquakes in the southeast of Puerto Rico have affected every citizen whether they had a mental disorder or not as they have pushed many to change their lifestyles and habits abruptly. She added that both she and her associates have noticed the impact on the services they provide to both public entities and private companies.

“Truly, the pandemic has affected the emotions of every Puerto Rican regardless of whether we have mental disorders or not. Each of us has a mental condition that we take care of in different ways and many of the things we do to take care of them, and that we [the ASSMCA] commonly recommend, have been limited for our safety,” she said. “We have noticed changes in the number of calls we get to the PAS emergency line; we noticed it in our monitoring services; we noticed it in our employee assistance programs across our government, as public employees have also been affected by the pandemic; we have seen it from the support we give to private companies.”

Roig Fuertes said the PAS hotline has received 709,410 phone calls since 2020 began; however, since March 1, which is the starting point the administration chose to receive phone calls related to COVID-19, until last Friday, the head of the ASSMCA told the Star that 219,565 phone calls, around 31 percent of them, were about the disease.

“Now, even though we separate our calls into different categories, my impression from the services provided from our hotline is that 100 percent of the phone calls we receive have to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, because, even though callers say [that their case] does not involve COVID-19, it involves their economic situation, which, consequently, has been affected by the pandemic that we have been facing since March, and, in many other cases, it goes back to the earthquakes,” she said. “Although the motive of the person’s phone call is due to an economic matter, that they have no fear of the virus and have no issues about going out and working, their real situation is related to the pandemic. That’s why I always say that 100 percent of our phone calls [to the PAS hotline], in one way or another, are related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Meanwhile, Roig Fuertes said the reasons citizens have called ASSMCA’s emergency line have varied over time. Some initial concerns were related to misinformation about the coronavirus, with some callers describing crippling anxiety amid the lockdown imposed by Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced on March 15. But later on, issues such as missing elder family members, being unable to be around friends and acquaintances, going back to work, feeling unsafe going outside, leaving their children at home, lack of income, shutting down businesses and unemployment have been some of the frequent reasons people have called the emergency line.

“It’s a complete readaptation not only from the spaces in which we take care of our mental health, it’s also a readaptation of our lifestyles, routines and habits. Experts have said that when changes happen drastically and in an unexpected form, these will cause a dislocation in our routines and, hence, a dislocation of citizens’ mental health,” Roig Fuertes said. “Also, people readapted to isolation, and once they adapted to the lockdown, they were told: ‘No, you have to go out again.’ They have to [shift] back to a change process.”

The Star asked Roig Fuertes how citizens can be expected to cope with COVID-19 during the Puerto Rican holiday season, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, as it is a time when both local and distant family members, friends and acquaintances tend to gather for celebrations, she said the ASSMCA recognizes how the virus might have a greater impact on citizens’ emotional state during the holidays and is working on guidelines for gathering safely.

“Now we can project that this [the COVID-19 pandemic] will have an effect going forward as there is no vaccine, as we know that there’s not a cure available yet. We know that people are dying due to the disease, mostly older people, and that the health condition of many others has been affected, even asymptomatic patients because they have to isolate from their loved ones,” she said. “As for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, I cannot anticipate the guidelines that the governor will determine based on what the experts recommend to her. What I can anticipate is that we will keep on going forward with COVID-19; therefore, starting today, we can keep in mind that if we decide we are going to get together as a family, we must take safety measures.”

Roig Fuertes said that if people consider gathering in person, it is essential to practice social distancing, dine in open-air spaces, use face mask coverings at all times, prevent physical contact at all cost while using non-verbal language to express affection, use disposable cutlery and make guests bring their utensils. Nonetheless, she said islanders should not discard planning dinners via teleconference as it is a safer method to promote togetherness amid the physical separation necessitated by the public health emergency.

“Through a videoconference, you could have the chance to keep in contact with others through a screen; I know many others have done this during the quarantine as they were dining at their own homes, so families shouldn’t discard this idea,” she said. “These are just some suggestions that one could consider, but we know that it’s important to see each other, for the sake of our emotional health.”

Anyone needing emotional help is encouraged to call ASSMCA’s PAS hotline at 1-800-981-0023, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or download the mobile app, available on Android and Apple devices.

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