DHS: Finds behavioral health challenges are compounded by COVID-19

Services are available for people struggling with addiction and mental health challenges

COVID-19 has impacted the health and safety of Wisconsinites in many ways, and the stress stemming from the pandemic and the uncertainty it has caused can prove extremely difficult for individuals, especially residents of Wisconsin who struggle with substance use disorder or another underlying behavioral health condition.

“We know that challenges like fear of COVID-19, financial pressures, and isolation are the kinds of stressors that exacerbate behavioral health and substance use disorders and that is why it is so important to ask for help if you need it,” said Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm. “Help is available and we urge anyone struggling to reach out.”

Preliminary numbers show that suspected opioid overdoses have increased 117% since the start of the pandemic in Wisconsin compared to the same time in 2019. Data from emergency departments in Wisconsin show there were 325 suspected opioid overdoses from March to July 13, 2020 compared to 150 suspected overdoses during the same time in 2019.

“COVID-19 hit our state just as we were making strides in reducing the number deaths from opioids, but the signs of increasing substance abuse aren’t limited to opioids. We encourage everyone to educate themselves on the signs of substance use disorder, whatever the substance,” said Paul Krupski, director of Opioid Initiatives at DHS. “Now is also a good time to get and learn how to use naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug that is available without a prescription at pharmacies and other locations across the state.”

DHS has been working with the Governor’s Office, other state agencies, and public and private stakeholders to address the state’s opioid epidemic. Over the past six years, DHS has awarded millions of dollars in grants to local and tribal health agencies and community coalitions to address opioid misuse on a local level. Additionally, DHS and the Department of Safety and Professional Standards (DSPS) issued a statewide standing order to make naloxone available without a prescription. The agency issues public health alerts every Monday to inform local and tribal health offices of a possible increase in opioid overdoses in their area so they can evaluate their responses to the epidemic on a local level. DHS also recently announced its seeking applications to pilot a hub-and-spoke model of care to treat people with substance use disorder and other health care needs. DHS is also seeking applications to pilot a hub-and-spoke health home to assure that substance use disorder and other health care needs are addressed.  

Calls to 211 Wisconsin also indicate an increase in requests for information on behavioral health. Data compiled by 211 Wisconsin concerning the need or problem expressed by the caller ranks mental health and addiction as third on the list, closely following COVID-19 and housing. Under additional funding provided by DHS, specialists with the Wisconsin Addiction Recovery Helpline are now able to follow up with people who reach out for help to ensure these individuals have made a connection to a source of support. This helpline was created by 211 Wisconsin in October of 2018, and the funding for follow up will last through September.

“Whether someone is struggling with opioid use disorder, other harmful substance use, or mental health concerns, like depression or suicidal thoughts, they should always remember, that it’s ok to ask for help. In fact, it’s encouraged,” Palm concluded.

Additional resources can be found at Resilient Wisconsin, which was launched by DHS in April to provide information on how to handle stress and build the ability to recover from adversity. Some of the resources include:

  • Wisconsin Addiction Recovery Helpline: Available 24/7 Call: 211 or 833-944-4673 or Text your zip code to 898211
  • HOPELINE Text Service: Available 24/7 Text HOPELINE to 741741
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Available 24/7 Call: 1-800-273-8255