Homeless or hitchhiking, and then not; on his medications, and then off them again; Kenne MacKillop described the impacts mental illness has had on his life as a series of back and forths.
MacKillop, 57, said he’s struggled with his mental health since he was a child.
“I’d spent so much of my life bouncing from a situation to being homeless,” he said in an interview.
Mental illness affects a large swath of the U.S. population; nearly one in five adults experience it in some form, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
According to a 2018 report from the APA, Appalachians have “disproportionately higher rates of mental health problems,” with Appalachia’s suicide rate nearly 17 percent higher than the national rate. The Athens NEWS reported last year that with suicide rates on the rise statewide, eight of the 10 counties with the state’s highest suicide rates were nestled in Appalachia.
This is not unfounded, as the reality of local circumstances create barriers for those who are seeking treatment.
In Athens and surrounding Southeast Ohio counties, some residents struggle with access to transportation, technology equipment and reliable internet connection. For them, it’s not so easy to go meet with a therapist in person, or spend an hour with them via computer screen.
“A lot of the issues I face are extrapersonal,” MacKillop said, adding that for him, money is consistently a stressor.
He recently adopted a cat, for example, which he said really helps on bad days. But he added that his cat involves extra expenses that sometimes go over and above his budget.
As the COVID-19 pandemic upended life for people across the globe, it also created the perfect storm for those who struggled with their mental health.
Ellen Martin, the Chief Executive Officer at Health Recovery Services, said the uncertainty the pandemic creates negatively impacted people who have struggled with substance abuse. More clients who were stable are now relapsing — in February, Martin said relapses were around 60 percent — while people who were essentially discharged are seeking help again.
“Everything in their life is chaotic now,” Martin said in an interview.
She added that Health Recovery Services responded by intensifying services, including providing additional appointments for those who needed them and offering telehealth appointments.
At other local mental health agencies, however, a pandemic-related influx in demand for services didn’t actually materialize.
“It leaves a lot of us wondering and worrying,” 317 Board Executive Director Diane Pfaff said in an interview.
At My Sister’s Place, a domestic violence agency serving Athens, Hocking and Vinton Counties, Executive Director Kelly Cooke said they actually saw a dip in services at the beginning of the pandemic.
“I think our staff and I were bracing ourselves for a big increase,” Cooke said, adding that she was surprised at first by the decrease in demand. “The more I thought about it, it would be tough to contact a hotline if you’re cooped up at home with an abusive partner all the time.”
She said the agency created a text hotline to combat this issue. She feels it’s been fairly successful.
While My Sister’s Place had to initially reduce capacity in their shelter to abide by public health guidelines, Cooke also said they began renting out apartments in an effort to serve more people.
“It’s not the best time to be cooped up in a house with people you’re not related to,” Cooke said.
This dilemma is not unique to My Sister’s Place. According to 317 Board Community Services Manager Sherri Tyree, many group therapy options and other forms of group support have also been temporarily terminated because of the pandemic.
“I think a lot of the great work that happens in recovery is when people gather together,” Pfaff said. “Just having that peer support and being connected in person.”
MacKillop said he found group sessions to be useful in his own treatment. Pfaff said he’s not alone — many people are missing the opportunity to gather with their peers.
Before COVID-19, MacKillop also enjoyed time at the Smiling Skull Saloon on Union Street; these days, he socializes more on Facebook.
“Aside from the increased isolation, aside from the decreased service of the bus — all those affect me in terms of opportunities to socialize, feeling safe socializing,” he said. “I spend a lot of time by myself.”
One mental health peer support group on Facebook, however, has provided MacKillop with a sense of community. He said everyone shares their own personal experiences with the day in and day out of mental illness.
MacKillop wants to see a psychiatrist every week, ideally, but said it wasn’t a reality because of how funding works.
Even with the challenges Southeast Ohio and Appalachian communities face when it comes to mental health treatment, however, MacKillop said he believes Athens County “has an incredible level of services available” compared to places he lived before coming to Ohio.
Although it may differ regionally, 317 Board Deputy Director Svea Maxwell said places all over the map are often faced with one universal struggle when it comes to mental health and treatment: stigma.
“That’s something all communities are having a battle with right now and we always have,” Maxwell said in an interview. “I don’t think that’s ever necessarily going to completely go away 100 percent, but anytime that we can reach out, educate, inform the community, connect partners, to help reduce the stigma, that does help.”
Editor’s note: This story is the second installment in a series detailing the history and evolution of mental health resources in the area. If you are struggling with your mental health, resources are available for you locally. Contact information for the resources mentioned in this story:
- Athens-Hocking-Vinton Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board. Located at 7990 Dairy Lane, Athens, OH 45701. Phone: 740-593-3177 (Athens County). 740-385-3317 (Hocking County). 740-596-2649 (Vinton County).
- Athens Health Recovery Services. Located at 224 Columbus Road, Athens, OH 45701. Phone: 740-592-6720.
- My Sister’s Place. Phone: 740-593-7125. Hotline: 1-800-443-3402.