A Look Into the Mental Health Crisis in Delaware

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Experts say mental health conditions like anxiety and depression are on the uptick in Delaware—and they span generations. So what’s the cause, and where can you find help?

Karen DiNardo went from a satisfying career as a vice president at JPMorgan Chase to out of work and suffering chronic pain. Her nearly two-decade career ended after a couple of failed back surgeries left her relying on Social Security disability pay. It hit her hard. The emotional weight dragged her down; even getting out of bed and taking a shower seemed like too much to handle. DiNardo had previously prided herself on her involvement in the community. Now she felt lost.

Around the same time, the Wilmington resident lost her mother and aunt in a car crash, and also saw a long-term relationship end. Depression began to crush her.

Such tragedies and tough circumstances can send many people into a downward spiral. But while life challenges continue unabated, additional pressures have been heaped on everyone in recent years. Studies show that anxiety and depression are on the upswing, Delaware mental health experts say.

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That’s partly related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the temporary loss of social interaction, explains Larence Kirby, a licensed professional counselor who runs Key 2 Clarity Counseling in Dover. He also says many of his clients are people of color struggling to deal with anger and anxiety stemming from social injustice and everyday biases.

There was so much upheaval in 2020 that it can be difficult to recall what exactly happened when. But we recall vividly that it was only a few months after the pandemic began when the murder of George Floyd set off protests and riots, along with a huge public debate. Kirby calls it a “perfect negative storm.”

Emily Vera, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Delaware, agrees that anxiety and depression have increased significantly during the past few years.

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The pandemic has “been associated with all kinds of distress, and insomnia and lots of things that would raise your risk for suicide,” she says. “I think that’s probably not a surprise, given we’ve been through this collective traumatic experience together and people have different ways of coping, and some people are able to manage it and lots of people are having a hard time.”

National suicide rates actually went down in 2019 and 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but rose again in 2021. Vera calls that a delayed reaction.

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“When the crisis was happening, everybody was kind of shocked and in that crisis mode of surviving and making sure their families were OK,” she explains.

Just as the pandemic’s economic impacts have yet to fade, with businesses struggling to get goods to market or find workers to fill jobs, the emotional impacts of the pandemic are still unfolding.

Some groups were hit particularly hard, like seniors stuck amid nursing homes where deaths piled up or children shut out of their usual social groups.

“What a huge disruption to their lives,” Vera says of students who were unable to attend school, especially the youngest ones. “They haven’t been alive that long.”

Kirby says that time away has caused problems with the teens he treats. “I find a lot of anger issues with those young folks… who all of a sudden don’t know how to interact with individuals within [their] school or neighborhood.”

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As DiNardo can attest, though, it doesn’t take a global pandemic to make life seem almost unbearable. Daily existence can suffice.

Nearly 46,000 people died by suicide in the U.S. in 2020, according to the CDC. The following year, that number was well over 47,000—just over 1,000 shy of the nation’s recorded high in 2018. Millions more people consider suicide each year, and more than a million actually attempt it, according to data from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

In addition, while suicide rates have declined somewhat among the middle-aged population in the last decade, they’ve increased among young people and seniors.

Their circumstances vary. Vera and Kirby pointed to problems like isolation, fractured relationships, abuse in the home and struggles at work. A loss of routine, lack of sleep and poor nutrition can also contribute.

One big potential issue is cellphone misuse, Vera says.

“There’s some pretty convincing data to show mobile phone addiction is real,” she says. “It happens to young people especially, and it is associated with poor mental health outcomes and with high rates of suicide.” (Anyone who has seen parents or grandparents become riveted by social media feeds knows screen time isn’t just a youth issue, of course.)

Technology often promises to enhance our connection with others, but according to Vera, we need more.

“Real-life social connection isn’t a luxury,” she says. “It helps keep us healthy and protects from death by suicide. …But we’ve become isolated, and I think that’s one of the big reasons that mental illness rates are rising.”

Mental health among veterans is an ongoing concern, even if we’re no longer inundated with news about roadside bombs in Afghanistan.

Kirby, who himself served in Afghanistan, takes issue with the idea that only combat leaves veterans traumatized.

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For one thing, military members face pressures of family life when soldiers are deployed overseas while their families stay home. Also, the huge gulf in expectations between military and civilian life can cause problems when soldiers try to adjust after leaving the service.

“You can suffer from post-traumatic stress because you’re in a totally new environment,” Kirby points out.

Whatever the cause, when depression or anxiety hit, life can feel like an endless gray desert with no road out to happiness.

But DiNardo knows there’s hope.

While dealing with despair, she happened to read about a support group hosted by the Mental Health Association in Delaware, which spreads awareness through education and provides help. DiNardo was inspired to leave the house to attend a meeting—a positive first step.

“I got to share what I was feeling—what I was experiencing—with other individuals that didn’t try to talk me out of being sad or feeling worthless,” she says. “We built one another up. And people shared all the things that they could do to make them feel better. …Like-minded people can help get us out of that rut.”

DiNardo also credits her work to a “wonderful psychiatrist who really gave me my life back.”

She’s been back at work for more than a decade now, not in banking but with the Mental Health Association, where she serves as director of advocacy. Drawing from her dark experience to help others, she trains people who have struggled with mental health issues to come alongside others in the same situation.

Like DiNardo, everyone can benefit from therapy at times, Vera says. “We all have those pain points where life is just not going right, and it’s hard for us to figure out how to move forward. That’s the perfect thing to talk to a therapist about.”

When mired in strong emotions, seeing your situation realistically can be difficult. Therapists offer an outside perspective, Vera explains, and have studied strategies to help you deal with issues. They can also help discern when more steps might be needed, like medication or a change in environment.

“My job is not to give you the magic answer or some kind of magic pill,” Kirby says. “But for me, it’s all about listening.”

To listen, though, he needs his clients to be comfortable sharing. Communication is key.

“I don’t want you buttoned up and telling me what you think I want to hear,” he says.

Finding the right counselor can take time, but those who need help immediately and don’t know where to turn can start with a new 988 number, a 911 equivalent for those dealing with a mental health crisis. The Mental Health Association also offers a list of counseling services, support groups and crisis lines on its website: mhainde.org.

“You have to give the gift of taking care of yourself, to yourself,” DiNardo says. “It’s the best gift that you can give.”

Warning Signs: Can You Tell If a Loved One Is Considering Suicide?

Licensed counselor Larence Kirby of Dover says it can be difficult to know, partly because it’s often an impulsive decision. If your gut is telling you something may be awry with a person you know, you need to ask directly if they’re thinking about ending their lives—a question that can be very difficult to ask. Emily Vera, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Delaware, points to these signs to watch for:

  • Sadness or anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Anger
  • An increase in risky behavior
  • Substance abuse
  • Personality changes
  • Loss of sleep or appetite
  • Concerning statements

If you are considering suicide or know someone who might be doing so, here are a few resources in Delaware:

Crisis Intervention Services (for adults) Northern Delaware: 800-652-2929 Southern Delaware: 800-345-6785

Delaware Guidance Services (for youth): 800-969-4357

The Trevor Project (for LGBTQ+ youth): 866-488-7386 or text “START” to 678-678

Delaware psychiatric hospitals and outpatient programs

Delaware Psychiatric Center: 302-255-2700 Dover Behavioral Health: 302-741-0140 Sun Behavioral: 302-205-0361 For more resources, visit mhainde.org/resources-main-page.

Visit attackaddiction.org for more information or to get involved.

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