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Jan Laughinghouse, Ph.D, director of addiction services at Capital Area Human Services, talks about the new program at a press conference to introduce its new Opioid Mobile Outreach Team and unveil a repurposed ambulance that will be sent to "hot spots" where opioid use and ODs are known to be high Monday Feb. 3, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. Laughinghouse will become the interim executive director of CAHS on March 1, 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic is intensifying mental health issues across the parish, Baton Rouge city and health leaders said Thursday.

The Capital Area Behavioral Health Collaborative hosted a community discussion addressing problems created and exacerbated by the pandemic. Held virtually, the event featured psychiatrists and social workers from Capital Area Human Services alongside public officials and activists. Panelists spoke on a variety of topics, from isolation and grief to economic hardship and crime.

“It’s important to note that the pandemic did not create these issues, but put a spotlight on the adversities facing our community and intensified them,” said Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.

East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner William "Beau" Clark highlighted the dramatic rise in overdose deaths, which were already on the uptick in 2019. He also identified increased use of heroin and fentanyl as a potent and deadly drug cocktail. 

"We have actually now hit nearly 130 deaths in the first six months of this year," Clark said. "We absolutely will break the record, and the concern is we will potentially break the record in 2020 by doubling the previous year’s overdose deaths."

While his office has seen a rise in such deaths, there has been a decrease in suicides, he said. 

Mental health experts have been especially concerned with individual and community responses to the virus as the weeks of pandemic lockdown stretched into months of social distancing. 

Dr. Marjorie Person, a psychiatrist at CAHS, said the pandemic has brought about "complex trauma." 

"Complex trauma is basically exposure to multiple events that are often invasive and interpersonal," Person said. "[COVID-19 is] a trauma that all of us are facing in one way or the other." 

While responses to trauma vary, some symptoms include feelings of confusion and problems with concentration, anger and irritability and mood swings.

Person explained that many people feel like much is outside of their control amid this tense climate — both in respect to the pandemic and recent, highly publicized cases of police brutality across the country.

Deputy Chief Myron Daniels with the Baton Rouge Police Department explained that some officers go through a crisis intervention training program to respond to people who may be experiencing some kind of mental health emergency. These officers are coached to view jail as a last resort and to offer resources to those in crisis instead.

While general anxiety can be difficult to process, others are dealing with direct pain from losing loved ones to the coronavirus.

Gwen Knox, a grief recovery method specialist with Brian’s Gift, LLC, said in addition to communal mourning during the pandemic, there is the pain of not being able to participate in the usual rituals around death.

"Losing a loved one or a friend and not being able to say goodbye in person...due to quarantining and social distancing guidelines can lead to unresolved grief," said "It’s the kind of grief that can last much longer. It can interfere with a person’s ability to function normally in daily life."

Many panelists spoke about connecting with friends and family through technology to stay in touch and rebuild bonds. Others advised maintaining a schedule to help give life a little more structure.

“Amid difficult and uncertain times, there is a great need to enhance communication and to work toward solving the problems of those at risk," said Janzlean Laughinghouse, interim executive director of CAHS. "The vulnerable, the elderly, individuals facing addiction, economic hardships, increasing crime and grief."  


Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com