COVID-19 has put a strain on the nation’s mental health, particularly for those in the GMHC community living with HIV/AIDS.
In response to the surge in need for mental health services, the Empire BlueCross BlueShield Foundation has awarded GMHC a $100,000 grant to expand its counseling services. The funding will allow GMHC to provide mental health counseling to 85 people currently on a waitlist for this service.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, GMHC provided more than 3,500 counseling sessions from March through December of last year alone–a 46% increase over the same period for 2019. But as the pandemic persists, the need has continued. Empire BCBS awarded the grant after approaching GMHC and learning its clients’ needs for mental health services “had grown significantly with the onset of COVID,” said Dr. Elizabeth Oudens, the health insurer’s medical director for behavioral health.
“Empire BlueCross BlueShield has a long history of collaboration with GMHC and holds the agency in really high regard,” Oudens said.
“GMHC is such a trusted resource, especially among the LGBTQ+ community, so they are well positioned to provide these services to a vulnerable population, including people living with HIV,” Oudens said, noting that it’s a population “already living with a higher incidence and prevalence of mental health conditions, such as mood and anxiety disorders.”
“GMHC has been a huge help to our members over the years, so our case managers were thrilled to hear about the grant,” she added.
GMHC mental health counselor Alexandra Meyer said COVID-19 has exacerbated already occurring issues for the clients she serves, who are mostly people living with HIV/AIDS.
This would be consistent with the findings of the inaugural State of the Nation’s Mental Health, a report issued by Empire’s parent company in May, which showed that diagnoses and treatment for anxiety and PTSD for adults grew in 2020.
“Two things come up with COVID–isolation and depression,” she said. “If you’re already dealing with depression and then your isolation increases, that can worsen your depression–and it can become a cycle that’s more difficult to break.”
People living with HIV/AIDS are already in a higher risk category, so COVID can increase their health anxieties, Meyer said. “Because they have HIV, my clients have been fearful that COVID could cause more severe illness or kill them.” Thankfully, she added, only three had contracted the virus and all survived.
Some of Meyer’s clients have not shared that they’re living with HIV with their families or workplaces, she said, which can add to their sense of isolation and lack of support.
“They want to have a safe space where they can feel comfortable, and be ok talking about who they are,” she said. “GMHC is really valuable for them, because it provides a community that is accepting.”
And for someone with a history of substance use, she said, “It’s easy to turn to that as the coping strategy,” when faced with isolation from the pandemic.
The fraught political atmosphere of the past year has also been a major topic in counseling sessions, Meyer said, as clients talk through their anxieties.
Adding to the isolation caused by the pandemic, Meyer said, some of her clients have not been able to see their families in over a year, because they live in other states or countries. Others care for elderly parents, and so they’ve been worried that they could get sick and be unable to care for their parents, she said.
“Overall, they’ve been very careful,” she added.
Meyer said the widespread availability of COVID vaccinations has “provided a huge relief” for her clients. “They can see family and friends, so that’s an improvement–and the fear of getting exposed to COVID and getting sick has dissipated to a substantial degree.”