BRAINERD, Minn. — It was a tense few days for May Fletcher.

A positive COVID-19 test in an employee at Safe Harbor, a residential facility for those experiencing mental health crises, meant Fletcher had to return home Sept. 19. Waiting on the results of her own test Sept. 22, the 51-year-old Brainerd woman said she’d been at the six-bed Brainerd site along the river for less than three days when she learned her time there would be cut short.

It was the most recent stay at a mental health facility for Fletcher, who said she suffers from six separate diagnoses — bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia and seasonal affective disorder. She’s been medicated in some way for nearly half her life, she said, and these conditions were only aggravated further by the pandemic and all its impacts.

“It’s really changed my life. I don’t see my friends anymore. I’m lonely. Things are really hard,” Fletcher said. “I don’t have any social interactions. I barely go to the store because my mom, we live together, and I don’t want to get her sick. … Going into a store is scary, even though you kind of stay 6 feet apart, you have to pass other people. … But I don’t really have the money to have groceries delivered to my house. Going to the grocery store is the only time I get to see people. And I really miss the connection that you have in the everyday greeting of people, like, ‘Hi, how are you?’”

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Fletcher said her state of crisis worsened recently to the point she was having thoughts of suicide. That’s when her counselor stepped in and helped get her into Safe Harbor. But three days in, the coronavirus would disrupt Fletcher’s life again. Anxiety-ridden at home with her 69-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia, Fletcher worried about whether she caught the virus. What if her mother caught it, too? What if she had to spend weeks closed up in her home, unable to transition to a different residential treatment facility in a time of great need? Or even if it took too long to get her results and someone else filled her spot?

Wednesday morning, Fletcher got the answer she hoped for: a negative test result. Later that day, more good news arrived. A bed was available for her at the New Leaf Healing Center in Cohasset.

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She would be able to continue her healing and recovery — although for a week, rather than the typical 10-day stay. Fletcher said her insurance counted the days she spent at Safe Harbor as part of the length of time the company would cover, despite the four stressful days at home between the stays. Fletcher said she’s concerned about whether she’ll be ready to navigate day-to-day life when released, and when the pandemic will stop changing everything.

“I talk to people on the phone, but it’s not the same as having people in person. It’s horrible. It’s really horrible,” Fletcher said. “I’m just waiting. When is it going to be over? When it is going to be over? You know? There’s no activities to go to, nothing to do.”

Responding to a growing need

Fletcher is not alone in her negative mental health experience due to the pandemic. Earlier this month, area mental health providers told U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., they’ve seen needs increase since the coronavirus arrived.

During that virtual conference call, Mary Marana, executive director of the Baxter-based Crisis Line and Referral Service, estimated crisis line calls have risen 25-30% since social distancing measures went into effect and much of the state has been subject to closures.

General Social Survey results out of the University of Chicago revealed roughly 1 out of 10 Americans seriously contemplated suicide in the month of June. More than 1 out of 4 young adults — those aged 18-24 years old — seriously considered ending their life in that time frame. For adults ages 25-44, that number was over 16%.

The drive to serve those who need mental health support is strong for Laura Vaughn, executive director of Northern Pines Mental Health Center in Brainerd, especially as that need grows. Although she and the center’s staff were prepared for the possibility of having to make changes at Safe Harbor if the coronavirus reared its head, it didn’t make having to close the facility down any easier, she said.

Laura Vaughn, executive director of Northern Pines Mental Health Center. Submitted photo
Laura Vaughn, executive director of Northern Pines Mental Health Center. Submitted photo

“I’m positive by nature and optimistic by nature, but the realist in me knows this is not going to be the first time that we’re going to have to possibly enact this,” Vaughn said. “It was unfortunate that all of our staff were exposed. We had 16 staff at that facility. All of those staff were exposed. And so that's unfortunate. We knew that that was the outside chance. … We really didn’t have an option in that. The facility needs to be cleaned and sanitized and we had to be able to do that.”

She described what occurred at Safe Harbor as the worst-case scenario in the organization’s preparedness plan because of the whole staff being forced to quarantine.

“In our plan, we have like a B team that would be able to go in from wherever. The issue with that is, we have to be able to meet the regulations still for a residential facility, which includes having a team that meets all of that criteria — RN, nurse prescriber,” Vaughn said. “And we’re maybe not that deep as an organization to get all of those people, and that would pull them off the line for seeing the clients that they currently are seeing to be able to move them in. So we're sort of in a worst-case situation in that all people were affected.”

Vaughn said Northern Pines did planning with the clients exiting the program, including attempting to locate an alternative facility to continue treatment and ensuring patients’ outside supports were aware.

Crisis response is the area Northern Pines has had to expand the most in these times, Vaughn said, including responding to family crises and relationship issues. The mobile crisis outreach team has assisted law enforcement with relationship-related calls to deescalate, which is a change to responses in the past.

Tami Lueck, adult services supervisor with Crow Wing County, said the Safe Harbor facility is the only residential setting in the county that’s closed so far because of COVID-19. She said while larger facilities may have the option to quarantine individuals in a separate wing, smaller residential locations may not have the staff to continue programming.

Lueck said while the county’s calls for mental health or substance use services haven’t noticeably increased yet, she said staff are preparing for that to happen as time goes on.

“I think we are concerned about what social isolation can do to people and are they getting the supports they need,” Lueck said. “We’re trying to be really mindful of making extra contacts with people we have mental health services for.”