March 11, 2020: The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and life in the United States changed: all parts of everyday life and how we interact.
Cortland County wasn’t immune. As people were cut off physically, and to a degree emotionally, mental health and addiction problems increased, and domestic incident reports doubled.
In-person entertainment was largely canceled, leaving audiences — and artists — looking for new ways to find expression. But hope was not lost. People learned to adapt — to tap the year as a source of creativity and self-reflection. A year after life as we knew it changed, we’re beginning to see how.
ALCOHOL USE UP
We’re drinking more. In fact, Family and Counseling Services of Cortland has seen a greater increase in people seeking help for alcohol addiction than other drug use.
Because alcohol is legal, it has gotten less attention than opioids, said CEO and Executive Director Lisa Hoeschele.
“Alcohol use has increased exponentially,” Hoeschele said. “The majority of the people that tend to approach us for addiction treatment are alcoholics — it’s a more serious problem than it has been in the past.”
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 13% of U.S. adults started or increased substance use in June 2020 compared to June 2019. With liquor stores deemed essential businesses and people going into lockdown in their homes, liquor sales have spiked. People drinking at home no longer need to limit themselves because they’re driving.
For young adults, drug and alcohol use is particularly pronounced with 25% reporting they too started or increased use during the pandemic, the report states.
“Alcohol, in terms of numbers, is the more significant issue,” said Carol Tytler of Family and Counseling Services. “It’s gotten worse since the pandemic.”
Excessive drinking could be due to a multitude of difficulties people must navigate, Hoeschle said. Transitioning home while sharing workspace with a partner and children remote-learning can be an extreme challenge.
“We are very lucky to have been able to provide telehealth to families in need,” she said. “We can meet them where they are, we can provide them with services, there’s no issues with weather or transportation or babysitting issues — we can provide services now where clients are in the moment.”
Alcoholics Anonymous has seen much the same said Victor, of Groton, who declined to give his last name because of the organization’s policy.
The number of telephone calls for the AA hotline have decreased as people have opted to teleconference. For some, he said, it’s the only way they can get to a meeting.
“There has been quite a bit of relapsing and not just people that are new, either,” said Victor, who has been with Alcoholics Anonymous for 24 years. “We are seeing it in people that have been sober for a while.”
MENTAL HEALTH DETERIORATES
Nearly half of Americans say pandemic-related stress has affected their mental health, reports a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
In New York, almost 2.7 million adults reported having a mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression, reported the National Alliance on Mental Health. In the U.S., one in five people live with mental illness but during the pandemic, 40% of adults reported struggling with mental health, especially anxiety and depression, the CDC reports.
“The pandemic exhaustion during an epidemic of despair and depression amongst our people has caused a huge increase in demand for services,” Hoeschele said.
Family and Counseling Services’ caseload is up 20% in Cortland, to 12,000 clients a year. Across all four counties it serves, it reports 550 clients a week.
“Some have been managing mental health very well and the pandemic may have triggered other issues,” Hoeschele said.
“We’ve seen an increase in suicide attempts and overdoses, too,” agreed Tytler.
Kara Vormwald of Cortland hadn’t seen a therapist for her anxiety before the pandemic started. While working from home, she took the opportunity to find the right one — in Texas.
“When the pandemic started, I figured why not because my anxiety started up again and it was easy to see someone online instead of driving to an office,” Vormwald said. “I could be comfortable in my own home and talk to my therapist right online — I thought it was really convenient.”
Her employer also provided employees with a membership to Headspace, a subscription based app that provides guided meditations and other resources.
Working from home distracted her and also gave her enough time to take up new hobbies, such as meditating and self-care Sundays.
Vormwald has dealt with anxiety since she was 12, but as she got older, it developed into social anxiety. Being isolated at home didn’t contribute to her anxious thoughts — going out in public did.
“Wearing a mask can be a struggle at times when I feel anxious or start to get anxious in areas where I have to wear a mask,” Vormwald said. “I think that started to make me panic more.”
“I am working on getting to know me, being confident in who I am and understanding myself better and what I need to feel good and be healthy,” she said.
‘NO RELEASE FOR THAT ENERGY’
In the early days of the pandemic, the Cortland Police Department would receive around 32 calls for mental health distress a month, said Lt. David Guerrera. In the past three months, as people have stayed inside more, that has gone up to 44 a month.
Mental health calls along with calls for other domestic incidents also have increased, Guerrera said.
As the pandemic wore on, with people staying in to avoid the spreading virus, “there’s no release for that energy” of anger, depression and anxiety, Guerrera said.
Between March 1, 2019, and March 1, 2020, the city saw 174 reported incidents of domestic disturbances, Guerrera said. In the same period a year later, it saw 374.
Guerrera, who leads the county’s Crisis Intervention Training focusing on mental health needs and deescalation, said unemployment and drug use, combined with families or partners cooped up together, played a big part in the increase.
Most calls, though, have been not for physical altercations, but rather arguments, he said.
In his 20 years with Cortland Police Department, Guerrera said he’s experienced spikes in calls, but “I can’t think of another time it’s been this prolonged.”
The pandemic has taken a toll on police, too, Guerrera said, combined with increased scrutiny of police departments following the death last year of George Floyd under the knee of a Minnesota police officer.
“It’s definitely taken a toll on officers,” Guerrera said. “They’re under stress for sure.”
What the pandemic has impressed on Guerrera and other officers is that they must understand why people act to help solve their problems. That requires empathy.
“That’s key to being an officer right now,” he said.
ADAPTATION AND REFLECTION
In early March 2020, folk musician Colleen Kattau was performing with her band Dos XX to support the release of a new album. March 15, 2020, was their final live show — at the Liverpool Public Library.
Before that, as an associate professor of Spanish at SUNY Cortland, she could tell everything was going to change by reading news reports and warning her students to pack up for the long haul for remote learning.
“It was kind of a memorable moment that it was going to be the last show for a while,” Kattau said. The crowd was only about 30 to 40 people spaced apart, down from the capacity of 100.
The rest of 2020, as the pandemic increased in scale and reach, was a blur, Kattau said. But she learned how to adapt to new ways of performing.
In late March or early April, Kattau performed before 400 people in an online webinar tribute show for Phil Ochs, a political activist singer.
Performing online came with its own challenges, including learning how to deal with sound compression and avoiding noise feedback, Kattau said. But performing virtually also opened up new opportunities to create videos that could be shared around the world.
“It opened up interesting opportunities,” she said, and new audiences in the United Kingdom and Latin America.
Kattau focused on herself as a musician. She wrote and recorded four new songs during the summer at her home studio with Rich DePaola, a singer, songwriter and producer. The two recorded spaced apart in the studio and with the windows open for maximum safety, Kattau said.
“It was a good time for creativity,” she said.
In August, Kattau and Dos XX got a chance to perform again at an outdoor concert in DeRuyter. It was the first time performing and being with her bandmates in person since the Liverpool show and it was one of the final times she got to be with bandmate Mike Brandt, who died of cancer in October.
The two were practicing a song that needed chords to be transcribed, Kattau said. Brandt listened to the music with her and wrote the chords on a piece of paper. She keeps that paper in a frame.
The show would serve as a “sweet memory of playing with him,” she said
Since August, Kattau has performed other online and small in-person shows, adjusting to the new normal. The pandemic has taught her to have a routine — for her it’s writing or singing first thing in the morning — and to be present in the moment.
“Self-care isn’t such a bad thing,” she said.