EAST GREENWICH—The town council heard from substance abuse coordinator Bob Houghtaling Tuesday night concerning the state of mental health in the community and its residents’ needs in dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as the winter months set in. Houghtaling highlighted the evolving landscape of mental health as residents attempt to adapt to phenomena such as distance learning, rampant unemployment and altered family dynamics. According to Houghtaling, the changing nature of COVID-19 and the response to it has shifted the needs of the community from one month to the next.

“Back in the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis around March 15, the first group that presented themselves were the adults. Some that were older and had trouble connecting with support services because they had all gone online,” Houghtaling said. “On top of that you had individuals who had addictive disorders.”

“Now you have some unusual dynamics that began to present themselves in family dynamics,” Houghtaling added. “You have kids who are 14 years old resorting back to infantile behavior.”

Houghtaling traces this unusual eddy in family dynamics and mental health to the conflux of circumstances that have led to parents and children being sequestered at home together, often without the benefit of full employment and with the added headache of distance learning. On top of all that, Houghtaling says, is the jockeying for position that naturally accompanies youth being taken out of their social groups and left to compete for attention with family members.

Houghtaling highlighted that the summer months, marked by the ability to get outside and experience the world, albeit while socially-distance, offered people some small relief from the stressors of the so-called new normal. He fears, however, that the cold and dark winter months may mean more isolation and more intra-family conflict and mental health concerns.

“Summer was boon to some people,” Houghtaling said. “People were able to get out and the intensity of some family considerations were ameliorated.”

Houghtaling worries that the renewed social isolation will further fuel an uptick in alcohol and opioid use that has coincided with the pandemic.

“Since March there has been a 55 percent increase in the purchase of alcohol,” Houghtaling said. “We had a two-year reduction in opioid fatalities. Now there has been a rise in the last six months.”

“What we are beginning to see here in East Greenwich is isolated drinking among the youth,” Houghtaling added, “And it wasn’t just beers.”

Houghtaling noted that, in a backwards sort of way, teenage experimentation with alcohol at parties or other events was preferable to isolated acts of consumption due to the fact that the former was rooted in a social dynamic that reinforced bonds among youth. The rise in isolated drinking among the youth, however, means that a mix of stressors, boredom and isolation are feeding unwellness among the town’s younger population.

When asked how the town was responding to the confluence of COVID-19 and substance abuse and depression, Houghtaling stressed that developing relationships with other organizations was vital.

“It’s caused us to enhance partnerships,” Houghtaling said. “Counseling and even school itself has had to change.”

At this point, approximately a fifth of the work that Houghtaling does is via Zoom, while other clients prefer a socially-distanced walk and talk session. Moreover, Houghtaling highlighted the importance of community, and particularly youth-led initiatives to increase awareness and communication in the town about mental health and wellbeing.

“I don’t think people realize how important some of the live streaming was early on,” Houghtaling said. “That branched out to a myriad of youth-related programs.”

Among those programs are a procession of youth-created podcasts such as Lucy’s Booth (Named after the famed Peanuts character) which seeks to communicate to adults the problems that youth currently face and how they view them.

“The moat that was around the schools no longer exists,” Houghtaling said. “The confluence between the schools and the community is enhanced more than ever.”

The fear of job loss, the stress of family constellations and the pressure of homeschooling will all need to be taken in and integrated into the town’s approach to dealing with both substance abuse and mental health more broadly. What remains to be seen is how the town can lean into things before the harshness of the winter months and its associated dilemmas fully present themselves. For now, Houghtaling just wants the town to know that he is available, and that support is available should they ever desire it.

“I’m more than amenable to meet,” Houghtaling said. “I’ve got the best job on the planet earth.”

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