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About 1 in 4 in Minnesota and the Dakotas take a mental health prescription, surveys show

North Dakota is slightly above the national average in the number of people taking mental health prescriptions, and has seen a sharp rise during the pandemic. Minnesota and South Dakota are closely behind North Dakota.

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Use of mental health prescriptions have risen in North Dakota and South Dakota during the pandemic, but dipped in Minnesota, according to federal surveys. Roughly one in four people reported taking mental health prescriptions.
Kenzie Holmberg / Grand Vale Creative LLC
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FARGO — The stresses, isolation and lack of social connections during the prolonged pandemic have taken a serious toll on mental health.

So it’s not surprising that more people are seeking mental health medications during the coronavirus pandemic, according to federal surveys.

Now roughly one of every four nationwide takes a mental health prescription — and the number has spiked during the coronavirus pandemic, according to federal surveys.

In North Dakota, 26% of those surveyed said they take a mental health prescription. The rates were a bit lower in neighboring Minnesota, 23%, and South Dakota, 24%

The use of prescription mental health medications has risen sharply during the pandemic, increasing 14% since January 2021 in North Dakota and 18% in South Dakota. Minnesota departed with that trend, dipping 1% over the period, according to the household pulse survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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“We definitely have seen a lot more people during the pandemic, for sure,” said Dr. Kathryn Ney, a psychiatrist at Prairie St. John’s in Fargo.

Because of the increased demand for hospital treatment during the pandemic, Prairie St. John’s added 10 overflow beds, which sometimes are all full, Ney said. Normally, Prairie St. John’s has 110 beds, a number that will increase to 128 when the new hospital opens later this year.

The pandemic has been stressful, but it’s also disconnected many from their formal and informal support networks, she said.

Prairie St. John’s has seen a surge in increased substance abuse during the pandemic. “A lot of people had their recovery squared away,” but disruptions at work and support networks derailed many, Ney said.

The need earlier in the pandemic for online learning was difficult for many. “There was a lot of stress related to that,” Ney said, noting that she has treated college students.

Now that the pandemic has gone on for almost two years, a lot of people are now managing better than before, she said.

“I think people are doing better, coping-wise,” Ney said. “It just keeps going on and on and on and people are getting burnt out by it.”

Because many are out sick, and because of the very low jobless rate, many people have had to work extra shifts to fill in for absences, adding to the pandemic’s strains, Ney said. “There’s so much overwork stress.”

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Although the pandemic has undeniably taken a toll, Ney and others point out that mental health prescriptions cover a broad range, and include sleeping pills and medications to calm anxiety for those who have a fear of flying but must make a business trip.

The high levels of uncertainty caused by the pandemic have been difficult for some to manage, while for others it’s the lack of connection, said Dr. Emily Welle, a psychiatrist at Essentia Health.

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Dr. Emily Welle, Essentia Health
Contributed / Scott Thuen

“Some patients have struggled with the fear, the unknown,” Welle said. While some find comfort in working from home, others feel isolated. “I’ve seen it go both ways,” Welle said.

Welle didn’t find the survey findings surprising, which she said tracked with other figures she’s seen about the use of mental health medications by roughly a quarter of the population.

As a psychiatrist, Welle said all the patients she sees are on some form of mental health medication, so it’s difficult to discern any trend.

Dr. Mustafa Abdulhusein, a psychiatrist at Sanford Health, agreed that it’s difficult to determine whether a lot more people are turning to mental health prescriptions, since many are written by primary care providers.

But he added that the pandemic clearly is taxing people’s mental health. He cited surveys in which 36% of respondents self-reported clinical signs of anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder in early 2020, the start of the pandemic.

“Locally we have noticed an increased amount of patients,” Abdulhusein said. “We think it’s because of the pandemic,” but sometimes it is difficult to tell. Also, nurses report that patients who call have been “a little bit more irritated” during the pandemic.

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At Sanford in Fargo, nurses report on an average day between 100 and 150 mental health prescriptions per day, Abdulhusein said.

“It’s hard to escape the news of the pandemic,” he said, or its consequences, including isolation and social distancing as well as school or work interruptions.

Lately, Abdulhusein has been working in the emergency department at Sanford Medical Center, where he is seeing more cases involving behavioral health issues. “The amount of referrals are definitely going up,” he said.

The North Dakota Board of Pharmacy tracks mental health prescription drugs that are controlled substances. Monitoring data reports provide a mixed picture, with sedatives generally declining since 2018, before the pandemic, and stimulants generally increasing.

Anecdotally, however, the broader range of mental health prescriptions appears to be increasing, said Mark Hardy, the pharmacy board’s executive director.

“Certainly we have seen an increase in some of the ADHD medications,” to treat attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder. That increase predates the pandemic, however. “We’ve just seen a steady increase in that over the years,” Hardy said.

As with other health providers, pharmacists have been extremely busy during the pandemic, not only filling prescriptions but also administering vaccinations and dealing with testing — all while coping with staff shortages, Hardy said.

“There’s no doubt that they’re busier,” he said.

It’s important to develop good coping skills, all three psychiatrists said. All recommended maintaining and reaching out to support networks, including family and friends as well as support groups and therapists and employee assistance programs.

“If they’re coping in unhealthy ways, it’s going to get worse,” Abdulhusein said.

Now, with so much experience of dealing with the pandemic, many people have adjusted, Ney said. “I think people are doing better coping-wise,” she said.

Mental health tips

Psychiatrists offered these recommendations for people to maintain their mental health during the pandemic:

  • Focus on getting adequate, restful sleep.
  • Try to maintain a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Exercise, including yoga, and try to spend time outdoors — admittedly more difficult on bitter-cold winter days.
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs.
  • If possible, reduce screen time. Take breaks if screen viewing is required at work.
  • Get a dog or cat as a companion animal. “I am a big proponent of emotional support animals,” Ney said. “Dogs and cats add a lot to your life.”
  • Meditation smartphone apps can help.
  • If unable to meet with friends and family in person, use phone or video visits.
Related Topics: NEWSMDMENTAL HEALTH
Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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