Health officials warn of pandemic’s mental health toll

EDINBURG — As the pandemic prepares to stretch into its fifth month and cases of COVID-19 continue to be reported at record highs, local health officials are warning that the epidemic is causing serious mental health issues in its wake.

Speaking at a news conference hosted by Hidalgo County on Monday, South Texas Behavioral Health Center CEO Joe Rodriguez said his institution deals from patients across South Texas, as far west as Laredo and as far north as Corpus Christi. He says mental health issues brought on by the pandemic have put his staff in a dilemma.

“This weekend we had a total of over 30 admissions that came into our hospital, so we are seeing more and more behavioral health patients coming into our hospital that are very sick,” he said. “Simply because of this COVID, they are not able to keep their appointments, not able to be keeping their appointments with their psychiatrists, their local mental health authority, and we’re seeing some of these patients that are becoming very sick.”

According to Rodriguez, some of those patients are dealing with severe mental issues, some of which could spur violence.

“We’re seeing some cases that are very difficult … with severe anxiety, with severe depression, that are suicidal, homicidal. Simply because they’ve been locked in for several months, and for them the social isolation really does become more of a paranoia situation.”

What’s more, Rodriguez says many of those patients fail to practice social distancing and some refuse to wear masks.

“We talk to our patients every day, ‘Wear your mask,’ unfortunately some of them don’t want to,” he said. “They hear conflicting stories from different sources.”

Rodriguez says that some of the individuals suffering from the mental strain of the pandemic wind up at local emergency rooms.

Robert Martinez, chief physician executive at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance Health, says that individuals who don’t need emergency care showing up at the ER tax an already straining healthcare system.

“When a loved one goes to the hospital it should be because they need to receive acute care treatment, real emergency room treatment. Otherwise we’re just filling those emergency rooms up with patients that don’t really need to be there for minor symptoms,” he said.

Martinez says that much of that strain is borne by DHR’s employees. Currently, those employees are caring for about 100 COVID-19 patients, which, Martinez says, is no easy task and can lead to mental health issues among the area’s healthcare workers.

“It takes its toll on the healthcare providers, everyone, whether it’s EVS, nursing, security,” he said. “When your own staff becomes mental health patients and they start to have issues, that’s the level of severity that we’re talking about, and I know everyone in every system is having that issue.”

Martinez urged the public to follow pandemic guidelines including hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus and unburden the healthcare system.

“Some of the things that we need your help with are making sure that you stay safe and you heed the warnings. Listen to what the county’s telling you, listen to what your officials are telling you and certainly your healthcare providers,” he said.

Rodriguez emphasized that mental health resources are available. More information on South Texas Behavioral Health Center in Edinburg is available at and their 24/7 helpline can be reached at (956) 388-1300.