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The Stress Of COVID-19 Over 2 Months Takes Its Toll

In this April 14, 2020, file photo, photographed through glass, streets are empty of traffic along the Las Vegas Strip as casinos and other business are closed due to the coronavirus outbreak in Las Vegas.
(AP Photo/John Locher, File)

In this April 14, 2020, file photo, photographed through glass, streets are empty of traffic along the Las Vegas Strip as casinos and other business are closed due to the coronavirus outbreak in Las Vegas.

They are going to start testing tens of thousands of casino workers for COVID-19. Casinos want to open in about two weeks.

So some people will get back to work.

But not everyone.

And when people learn they won’t be called back, it’ll be just one more thing to deal with as Nevada rolls into the third month of dealing with the coronavirus.

For everyone, it has taken a toll. People aren’t sleeping. Domestic violence has risen. We aren’t New York, but health care workers have been shell-shocked by cases and deaths.

And then there’s suicide. Construction workers have the second-highest rate of suicide in the country. Some of them are working but the industry is hit hard because while big construction projects like the Raiders Stadium, the Las Vegas Convention Center and Resorts World are underway, when those wrap up, what will happen next?

Frank Hawk is the vice president and chief operating officer for the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters. He knows personally the devastating impact of suicide. 

His son took his own life three years ago. Hawk said he and his wife saw no warning signs that his son was in distress. 

"We were blindsided," he said, "There were no signs for us." 

But even before his personal loss, Hawk had seen the impact of suicide. During the Great Recession, when the construction industry took a nosedive in Nevada, the carpenters' union lost dozens of members to suicide. 

In 2009, Hawk said every three days he would get a call that another union member had killed himself. In 2010, the union lost members to cardiac arrest. 

"If they weren't losing their struggles with depression, they were losing it to stress," he said, "It's not that they're coming home and they're not mentally tough. It's that it creates mental illness and they're notorious for not reaching out for help."

With his son's suicide and the recession's impact in mind, Hawk wants to be ready for the impact the outbreak and subsequent shutdown will have on the mental health of his industry.

"I want to get in front of it before it becomes a problem," he said, "We know that we're heading into a recession here in Nevada and we want to make sure that our members and their families and the community have the awareness to know that reaching out for help is critical during these times."

Many workers are facing tough times, some because they're not working and others because they're overwhelmed with work, which is the case for many in the health care industry.

Dr. Barry Cole is a psychiatrist in Reno and he is part of a warmline created by the Nevada Psychiatric Association to help front line health workers deal with the new way they're working.

"We're already hearing from some of these people that they're overwhelmed with stress," he said, "They're working beyond their trained capacity. They had what they thought were certain limitations on what they knew and could do but the reality is - all hands on deck." 

He said people are getting pulled from normal work environments into extraordinary circumstances and they have no alternatives but to work because with people's lives on the line they must rise to the occasion.

Cole and his association are concerned about what all of this stress will translate into over the next few years.

"What is society going to look like when you have lots of stressed-out people who never really addressed what was going on in realtime," he said. 

Misty Vaughan Allen is the coordinator for the Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention. She said there are already efforts underway to create mental health programs for the long term care of health care and front line workers.

"We have from day one trying to prepare resources specific to our health care providers and first responders," she said, "We know because of this the post-traumatic stress will start to increase. Those symptoms will start to show down the road. So, we are building help to prepare for that." 

The Division of Public and Behavioral Health is partnering with UNLV School of Medicine to create a program to help those workers. 

Mental health issues are not just a problem for those dealing with COVID-19 patients and their families, it is being felt in a variety of ways by regular people because everyone deals with difficult or traumatic situations differently.

Dan Ficalora is a therapist with Bridge Counseling. He said some people's first reaction is denial and avoidance.

"The pandemic is such a heavy, pervasive topic in society right now that some people just don't even want to deal with it," he said, "They're going to try to do the best that they can to go out and live their lives in a way that they always have and when they're confronted with aspects of this pandemic that are challenging or scary or provide anxiety that's where you might also see the irritability and aggression pop up."

He also pointed out that someone not wearing a mask in public may not mean they're not taking the pandemic seriously. That person could be dealing with other issues like claustrophobia or anxiety made worse by the mask.  

Ficalora was part of the effort to help survivors of the October 1 mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip. One of the biggest differences between that tragedy, and others like 9/11, is the element of time.

"Those events were finite," he said, "There was a beginning, middle and end and this is on-going with no set end date."

So people will be experiencing the trauma from the pandemic in different ways and on different levels.

Because of those differences, Vaughan Allen said it is important for people to not wait for someone to ask for help. 

"As a community, we can't wait for those who are struggling to seek out help," she said, "We have to really wrap our arms around them and recognize when someone might be approaching the crisis." 

Vaughan Allen said we don't want to wait for a crisis of suicide or other mental health crises to get people the help they need.  

If you’re in crisis, there is help available.

Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Or Text:  741741

More mental health resources:

Misty Vaughan Allen, coordinator, Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention; Dan Ficalora, therapist, Bridge Counseling; Frank Hawk, lead representative, Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters; Dr. Barry Cole, psychiatrist


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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.