ITHACA, N.Y. –– The coronavirus has wrought havoc on every aspect of daily life, not the least of which has been the mental health of the American public. 

That has generated further burden on the mental health services industry in the country and locally, which was already stretched fairly thin in Tompkins County. The extra stress of the coronavirus has had at least one seemingly universal impact: proving that anyone can be susceptible to mental health struggles, and that help from others is sometimes necessary.

“What we’ve observed, anybody that had a little stress of anxiety before this, you’ve got another reason to feel that way,” said Rod Noel, of the Clinical Association of the Southern Tier. They opened up an office on Tioga Street almost two years ago. “It’s ramped up everything. We’re getting a lot of clients that formerly wouldn’t have needed mental health services, because they were getting by and managing things. But you just throw one more major stress test— as in a lockdown, fear of death from the virus, worrying about your family and friends, your business—throw any one of those concerns into the mix, and someone who is ‘getting by’ might be pushed over the ‘mental health edge,’ as it were.”

The need for quality, compassionate mental health care in Tompkins was echoed by county officials as recently as last week. During a panel discussion between representatives from the county Office of Human Rights and the health department held virtually via Zoom Thursday, Susan Spicer, the clinical director at Tompkins County Mental Health, spoke to this same point as Noel, saying when placed on a 0-10 scale of someone’s own feelings about their ability to handle their mental health issues, the pandemic had forced patients she had spoken to into darker mental health holes. Even people who think of themselves of totally free of mental health struggles have been moved farther down the aforementioned 0-10 scale.

“The depressed person is now calling in sick frequently because they can’t get out of bed,” Spicer said. “The person who was mildly anxious before the crisis is now having two panic attacks today. So these folks may need treatment now.”

Of course, there’s the separate and more societally-ingrained issue of who can afford to access suitable mental health therapy, either through their health insurance or via out-of-pocket spending. Though not nearly a cure-all, Spicer did tout the Mental Health Association of Tompkins County’s “Find a Local Therapist” feature on its website that can help people who are unfamiliar with the process navigate finding someone who they can afford, one way or another.

Ithacans have another new option for mental healthcare, with the Mindwell Center opening its doors earlier this fall at the South Hill Business Campus and currently accepting new patients. 

The center, founded by native Ithacans Dr. Aaron Rakow and Dr. Sarah Markowitz, said they will aim to provide another venue for therapy in Ithaca, which has a sizable mental health services community, but still more demand than supply. Noel echoed the latter sentiment, noting that when he wanted to open up the Tioga Street location of the Clinical Association of the Southern Tier, he found that despite the strong presence of mental health services locally, nearly none of them had openings for new clients—indicating that more were necessary for those who couldn’t find an open spot. 

They’ll be specializing in cognitive-based therapy, and are aiming to help both permanent residents and college students, plus looking to work with local school districts to help with mental healthcare for schoolchildren and teachers. 

“We quickly realized two things: that Ithaca is fortunate to have a very strong mental health treatment community, composed of many exceptional providers,” Rakow said. “However, we also realized that despite this, there remains a significant need for evidence-based mental healthcare to help close the gap, reduce often lengthy waitlists and increase access to mental healthcare for all Ithacans, including the Ithaca College, Cornell and TC3 communities, as well as the surrounding area.”

With the pandemic ongoing, Rakow said the center will provide both in-person appointments for those who feel comfortable, as well as telehealth options for people who do not yet feel comfortable with that level of interaction yet, considering the COVID-19 implications. 

Appointments can be made at (607) 260-3100 or Support@MindWellCenter.com.

Other resources for those struggling with their mental health during the ongoing pandemic include clinic and care services directly through Tompkins County Department of Mental Health, which can be reached at (607) 274-6200 and Family & Children’s Service, which offers telehealth therapy sessions and can be reached at 607-273-7494.

Peer services and group therapy are available through the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, which can be reached at (607) 273-9250, or the National Alliance On Mental Illness, Finger Lakes, which can be reached at (607) 273-246.

For Tompkins County residents facing an immediate mental health crisis, the local Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service hotline is available by calling (607) 272-1616.

And as a reminder, New York State is partnering with the mental health and wellness app Headspace to offer free meditation and mindfulness content for all New Yorkers. You can access a collection of guided meditations, along with at-home mindful workouts, sleep and kids content to help address rising stress and anxiety at headspace.com/ny.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com