EAST GREENWICH – The Town of East Greenwich is reporting an increase in demand for civil services such as mental health, substance abuse and family counseling last year, a rise likely spurred by the stressors and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to East Greenwich Drug Program Director Bob Houghtaling.
“COVID impacted us in a variety of ways,” he said. “Some adults, who were involved in things like Alcoholics (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous and other support groups that were either eliminated or truncated in some way [by the pandemic], needed that in-person connection. Some of the numbers that picked up for us were the adults that benefited from that face-to-face interaction.”
“There were some people who had their services altered,” Houghtaling continued. “Their counseling went to Telehealth, AA meetings were either nonexistent or they went online. The other thing that really manifested itself was that when a significant portion of our academic time went to distance learning, now you had kids at home witnessing some of the dysfunction in the home - divorces, people out of work, etc. That close interaction and some of those stressors had impact on family constellations. These were some of the things that started to present themselves very early on in the pandemic.”
As time went on and the pandemic went from a short-term adjustment to a long-term one, Houghtaling said he began to notice an increase particular in children of conditions like anxiety, depression, binge drinking, marijuana consumption, etc. However, while Houghtaling maintains that younger people and students were more prevalent in terms of turning to substance abuse to cope with the pandemic’s isolation and uncertainty, adults also suffered. Sometimes, this behavior can manifest itself in something as simple as drinking with friends over a video communications platform.
“We also had some adults that would, in an attempt to try and stay connected with their peers, have drinking parties on Zoom,” said Houghtaling.
According to the town, 301 individuals sought counseling for mental health, family and substance abuse issues in the past year, an increase of about 80 clients compared to 2020. 167 of clientele this year were adults while 134 were under 18 years old. About 42 youth entered into services to address substance abuse, while 92 youth clients were treated for mental health. Meanwhile, only 57 adults sought assistance with mental health issues, compared to 81 clients seeking aid in the area of parenting and 19 clients for substance abuse counseling.
In addition to counseling, Houghtaling and the program he heads offer a variety of services for those struggling in a range of issues, from clubs in school to after-school programs to initiatives, events, working with government groups such as the town council, school committee and juvenile board, community forums and even podcasting. While the means of how services were delivered to residents changed due to the pandemic, Houghtaling said he and his department had to rise to the occasion to meet the growing need. This adjustment, most notably, came in the form of taking walks around the neighborhood.
“We had to get pretty creative to meet the needs of people,” said Houghtaling. “One of the things that I think we can take pride in is that sometimes life doesn’t always go on script, and that meant we had to go to where people are.”
“I was meeting a significant amount of people who were struggling in town and basically walking around the town with them,” said Houghtaling. “I saw many clients after school, on Saturday or Sunday mornings, and we just walked around the town in an effort to keep them connected. I was getting my laps in.”
The East Greenwich Drug Program Director would also take time to meet clients on weekends, walking around the town with them or meeting for coffee and to talk. Houghtaling notes that many established support systems for older individuals fell apart as a result of the pandemic and also helped push the need for such civil services. Most important, he remarks, he was not alone in helping to address the problems that arose out of the pandemic, and witnessed many examples of people helping others during a time of crisis.
“There were some people who were heroes,” said Houghtaling. “People in our churches did some tremendous work. People in our support communities helped feed people. The schools helped people stay connected. The town itself allowing me to put more emphasis on diversity programs and marginalized populations - one of the things I learned was the goodness of people and the lengths they were willing to go to help others. That was very important.”
Going forward, now with a variant that is causing cases to surge again and re-introducing uncertainty back into daily life after nearly two months of what seemed like a possible end to the pandemic, Houghtaling is championing the mindset of taking the opportunity to come together rather than be divided.
“We the adults can model the behavior,” he said. “If we’re arguing with each other, if we present ourselves as against one another and we have a sense of fatalism, that doesn’t look good to our children. But if we can be honest and tell them they can make it through this, you’re resilient, there’s supports and this is hard for us too, that will likely build better behavior and people.”
“We can measure what college a person is going to go to, we can measure grades and test scores, but it’s hard to measure love, commitment, assiduousness,” Houghtaling added. “I think the intangibles came to the floor and some of those things that go beyond measure proved to be incredibly important.”
Now, Houghtaling and the town are taking what they learned and applying it to the future, planning and developing strategies for how the town can further meets the mental health and substance abuse needs of its residents for the years to come, no matter what they look like.
“The enemy is not us,” he said. “The enemy is an illness. The enemy is a bug. I think that working together rather than demonizing each other is important. We need to come together and understand the true enemy is a virus that’s impacting everyone.”