The Austin community is still reeling from a hostage incident at a local pediatric practice late last month, in which Dr. Katherine Lindley Dodson was killed in a murder-suicide. The crime remains under investigation, and it is unclear what role the pandemic may have played in the suspect's motives. However, recent studies have found a dramatic increase in suicidal ideation over the course of the pandemic, as many people contend with social isolation and financial stress.
Local mental health providers say that demand for services—whether in the form of client referrals or hotline calls—are up. State and federal emergency orders have improved access to telemedicine, which enables some people with insurance to access therapy virtually, but in-person outreach and other suicide prevention efforts may be affected by the pandemic.
The University of Texas Police Department received 368 calls with a mental health element between Jan. 1 and Nov. 17, 2020, compared to 493 calls in the entirety of 2019. Although this represents a slight decrease year-over-year, about half of UT students had a fully online course load, suggesting that for students on campus such calls were more common. "From what we have seen, even in the pandemic, our call volume is high," Lt. Samantha Stanford told Austonia.
UTPD recently created a specialized team of officers—the University Crisis Intervention Team, or UCIT—to respond to 911 calls with a potential mental health element.
Colors of Austin Counseling, a local therapy practice, held 6,606 therapy sessions in 2020—a 60% year-over-year increase—and more than doubled in size, from seven clinicians to 15. "The evolution of our practice has been amazing on the business side of things, and it's devastating to see the need that people have," owner and licensed therapist Vanessa Flores told Austonia.
Despite the clear increase in the number of people seeking out mental health care, Flores and other local therapists said it has not necessarily been accompanied by an increase in the severity of cases.
Integral Care's 24/7 helpline has received more calls since the pandemic began, according to practice administrator and Central Texas Suicide Prevention Coalition co-chair Melody Palmer-Arizola. But most are from people looking for someone to talk to. "A lot of the calls are people who are just like, 'When is this going to be over?'" she said.
A universal concern
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 11% of U.S. adults reported seriously considering suicide and 40% reported struggling with mental health or substance use during a weeklong period in late June. Alarmed by the mental health repercussions, some people questioned public health officials about the safety of social distancing and other pandemic precautions.
(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Last August, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott addressed this concern in one of his regular COVID-19 briefings. "There's no evidence to support that suicides during COVID-19 … are higher than they were in 2019," he said.
Since then, however, new studies have emerged that suggest suicide may be increasing. "Evidence from previous pandemics suggests a short-term decrease in suicide can occur initially—possibly linked to a 'honeymoon period' or 'pulling together' phenomenon," according to a November editorial in the British Medical Journal. Last month, Nature published a study that found an increase in suicide following an initial decline during the pandemic in Japan.
Real-time American statistics are not yet available and Austonia is awaiting a response from the Austin Police Department regarding the number of calls it has received regarding a mental health crisis. Last week, APD's 911 call operators began using an updated script when greeting callers: "Austin, 9-1-1, do you need police, fire, EMS or mental health services?"
Criminal justice reform advocates have lobbied for this change for years, hoping to limit interactions between police officers, who may not be trained to respond to mental health crises, and people experiencing them. Although it is too early to know the impact of this change, local therapists report that the demand for mental health support and services has increased significantly since the pandemic began.
Many mental health care providers have successfully transitioned to teletherapy, offering appointments over video or the phone, but those seeking out mental health treatment may face other challenges posed by the pandemic.
"Affordability is a barrier to entry," said Dr. David Hill, an Austin-based licensed psychologist and member of the Texas Psychological Association, which recently launched a resource guide that includes a psychologist search tool. Many people are facing increased financial stress due to pandemic-related layoffs—and may also have lost their health care coverage. "It's a bit of a catch-22," he added.
Nonprofits that help to fill these gaps are also affected by the pandemic.
Pick With Austin, a local organization that donates guitars and other musical instruments to children and teenagers with depression, saw its outreach curbed by the pandemic because many of its partner organizations—children's hospitals, community therapy groups, juvenile detention centers—were closed to visitors.
"What's happened with the pandemic is we've suddenly been cut off from all of those places," PYA Founder Jeff Curley told Austonia. His son, teenage guitarist Alan Carter Villaruz-Curley, died by suicide in 2010 when he was 18.
In 2019, the nonprofit distributed around 200 guitars. Last year, it was only able to give out around a quarter of that, despite having a surplus amount of donations.
"The pandemic has kept (young people) from going to school, from socializing with friends … so they've actually increased their depression," Curley said.
Despite the very serious mental health concerns surfaced by the pandemic, therapists and other experts expressed hope that the current crisis might lead to better health care coverage, wider use of teletherapy and decreased stigma around seeking out support.
Dr. Elizabeth Portman Minne owns Vida Clinic, which provides mental health services to individual clients as well as to school districts, including Austin ISD. Over the course of the pandemic, she has seen children and teenage clients embrace teletherapy. "It's versatile," she told Austonia. "Regardless of whether people are in school or wherever they are, they're still able to stay connected with their therapist."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently identified mental health care funding, statewide broadband access and making permanent some temporary telemedicine regulatory waivers as top priorities this legislative session.
Minne is optimistic that the pandemic, in laying bare so many of the mental health challenges people are facing, will normalize seeking out care.
"It's an odd silver lining of the pandemic," she said. "It kind of made us connect with our own fragility and become more open to reaching out for help."
You can reach the Texas COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line at 833-986-1919 an the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
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This Gemini season, starting today, is appropriately paradoxical, twisting and blending simple concerns with life’s bigger, faster and more fiery quests.
On Sunday, May 29, we’ll experience one of the year’s biggest calls to adventure in the Mars/Jupiter conjunction—a potent duo whose combined force will start to be especially strongly felt when Mars moves into Aries on May 24. Contrastingly, Mercury, the ruler of Gemini, will keep our mental temperament grounded and steady as they move slowly through the sensual, materially-oriented sign of Taurus for most of the month. These contrasting forces might be tricky to weave together—read ahead for tips on how your sign can find the right approach this month!
Gemini: May 21-June 20Gemini: May 21-June 20
Welcome to the season of your Solar Return, Gemini! This month will set the stage for your whole coming year, so it will be great to start it off on the right foot. The most important bit of cosmic context is Mercury moving slowly till the end of the month in the grounded sign of Taurus. This is an encouragement to savor your questions and conversations with the world, without needing to rush to answers and to mull over the elemental, fundamental aspects of your life. It would be great to give yourself perspective, especially by experiencing new environments and by moving through the world in a new manner. Allow yourself to be surprised! You might loosen some of your hardened beliefs, but don’t discount the trustworthiness or substance of the new ideas you may stumble upon.
Cancer: June 21-July 22Cancer: June 21-July 22
For you, Cancer, the paradoxes of Gemini season have to do with inwardness and outwardness. On the one hand, you can expect your inner world to be as active as ever, swirling with meaningful thoughts and experiences needing to be digested. On the other, this month features a strong call to get out of your shell, open up to the world at large, and bravely share yourself—perhaps even in an unprecedented way! In transitioning between these extremes, the Moon can be as good a guide as ever—heading into and out of the New Moon on the 30th, you might focus on articulating and envisioning this burgeoning impulse and nourishing the terrain for its growth. As we ramp up to the full moon on the 14th, you might find small ways to embody, communicate and make real this developing dream.
Leo: July 23-Aug 22Leo: July 23-Aug. 22
This Gemini Season is particularly intense for you, Leo, as it calls forth both a fiery, hungry spirit and a more serious, dedicated energy, aware of life’s hardships and limitations. These impulses herald a summer of growth and maturation, which would be great to get a good jump on. Just don’t let this process make you too heavyhearted or self-involved! Your friends, community, and experience of the broader social world at large can help soften and clarify this strong, fiery self that’s metamorphosing. You might rely upon this bigger, human perspective to help you progress smoothly and gracefully. Although it might require some extra humility, taking yourself less seriously can be a superpower. A lighthearted approach can be extraordinarily efficient and effective. It might be paradoxical, but consider that relying on a bigger, greater power than your own is your path to individual fullness.
Virgo: Aug. 23-Sept. 21Virgo: Aug. 23-Sept. 21
This Gemini season brings a charge for you to expand into more substantive and serious subjects, Virgo. Especially if you feel you’ve been playing small, this will provide an opportunity for you to grow into more meaningful and demanding work in the world. At times, this will feel hectic and harsh—there will be no shortage of fire this month. You, as much as anyone, though, can help find the right place and time for that fire, directing it where there’s a need for more energy and oomph. Lightheartedness can be really helpful in navigating and dancing with this heat—with a bit of humor and perspective, you can respond and adapt quickly and gracefully. By the end of the month, you should be able to feel like your view of and faith in the bigger picture has expanded.
Libra: Sept. 22-Oct. 23Libra: Sept. 22-Oct. 23
This Gemini season will provide ample opportunities for you to learn and grow through your relationships, Libra. We’re really looking at the full spectrum of potential experiences here—on the one hand, Mars’ entry into Aries can ignite flammable subjects, and people are generally likely to be on edge, assertive and protective. On the other, Venus’ conjunction with Uranus toward the end of the month can bring unexpected encounters and new forms of relationship into play. Throughout all of this, there’s a theme for the next year of growth through fiery, direct relationships. This is a step beyond just keeping the peace which may be discomforting, but consider that it may take your relationships to incredibly satisfying and enduring places.
Scorpio: Oct. 24-Nov. 21Scorpio: Oct. 24-Nov. 21
This Gemini season brings opportunities for sharpening both your wits and tools, Scorpio, although this may feel like a trial by fire. Although they may feel particularly urgent and exciting this month, many of these challenges and opportunities will last throughout the summer, so take your time to get your focus clear and settle into a groove. The real challenge and potential this month have to do with navigating subtle, intricate dynamics so that you aren’t flustered and know exactly where to put your effort. In order to develop this discernment, you can definitely rely on trusted allies, who can act as mirrors, triangulation points and simple safe havens amid the storm. This is a strategic necessity, but be sure to give thanks and enjoy the simple goodness of companionship, too!
Sagittarius: Nov. 22-Dec. 21Sagittarius: Nov. 22-Dec. 21
The sharp, powerful impulses and stimulation of this Gemini season are pushing you to the development of your free will, Sagittarius—a spirit of playful, proud independence and spontaneity. There are a couple of ways that you might think about this. First, that courage is necessary to truly live out your convictions and ideals, as well as a way to ultimately best serve the world. Truth isn’t always soft or easy. On the other hand, this isn’t too complex and is keyed to cutting through stagnation. There’s a sort of simplicity and instinctive wisdom that you can draw upon and develop into this month, letting things happen. If you need to, you can think of this as an act of trust, or faith in a basic goodness and natural, flowing order of things.
Capricorn: Dec. 22-Jan. 19Capricorn: Dec. 22-Jan. 19
The motion and activity of this Gemini season can quickly develop your values and taste, Capricorn, as you strip back ordinary and inherited ways of thinking and open your eyes to life’s beauty. This simple and vibrant beauty will stimulate your desire to savor life’s goodness and strive for the highest quality experience possible. Along the way, your fixed, limited ideas about what is possible can fall away, even as the new and extraordinary may require incredible strength and devotion from you. Although these are lofty ideals, they’ll have a lot to do with your tangible, everyday experience of your body and sense of home—this is a primal, almost wild energy being rekindled. Alongside this intense fire comes a certain risk, so make sure to enter into this new adventure step by step, without injuring yourself or anyone else.
Aquarius: Jan. 20-Feb. 18Aquarius: Jan. 20-Feb. 18
This Gemini season can help you learn how to feel more rooted and alive in life’s simple aspects, Aquarius. Although this can certainly take place in tandem with new teachers, these don’t have to be big gurus—rather, your curiosity, delight, and common sense might be the best guides. In this regard, your quality of perception, thought and the well-being of your inner child can all make great strides. Through the first part of the month, this will likely feel exciting and overwhelming. As we approach our new moon, though, you can get a better sense of where you need to be settling into more focus and definition in your life. This back and forth between a growing sense of clarity and inner authority and a stronger capacity to be firm and to the point will continue to deepen throughout the summer.
Pisces: Feb. 19-March 20Pisces: Feb. 19-March 20
This Gemini season is focused on helping you develop a stronger sense of connection to the world around you, Pisces. Although this can take place by rearranging and bringing more life into your body and environment, an initial spirit of fresh possibility and willingness to release what is stale and outgrown is a necessity. In doing so, you can land upon a greater sense of capability and being resourced for life’s adaptations and evolutions. This will certainly be a month of growth in your material world and relationship with your body, but the serious litmus test is how settled you feel internally—the quality and clarity of your thoughts and inner world. Ideally, though this summer you’ll develop a stronger trust in yourself and an easier interface between your inner riches and outer quality of experience.
Aries: March 21-April 19Aries: March 21-April 19
The Mars/Jupiter conjunction is especially important for you, Aries, as it happens in your home sign. This signifies a spark of expansion that will play out over the coming year. Here, Jupiter is calling you into new ventures and adventures, to level up and act on the big dreams and desires brewing inside of you. Thus, this month is a great time to initiate some bigger change, to take some jump, leap or healthy risk. Although you don’t want to let this moment slip away, please don’t get impulsive or headstrong—make sure you’ve got at least a bit of a plan. Ideally, whatever you’re aiming at will require a good bit of care, and you can expect that much of this opportune, fertile energy will continue and develop throughout the next year.
Taurus: April 20-May 20Taurus: April 20-May 20
The start of the coming month will challenge you to keep up the pace, Taurus, so that it can consolidate into a healthy rhythm. Finding the right stride, you can find yourself breathing more easily, and maybe let yourself loosen your grip or take your hands off the handlebars, trusting your sense of balance and the strength in your legs. This can set the stage for an opportune spell at the end of Gemini Season, as your ruler Venus makes a conjunction with Uranus—you might keep an eye out for spontaneous side adventures, ways to create space for synchronicity, or simple moments where life is calling you into new ways of being. Ideally, these will feel like clear upgrades, but if you need to think of them as experiments or trial runs, that’s totally okay, too.
Austin police have charged Kaitlin Marie Armstrong, a local cyclist, for the murder of Moriah "Mo" Wilson.
Wilson, a rising star in the gravel and mountain bike community, was found dead with gunshot wounds inside an East Austin home on the night of May 11 when she was in town for the weekend Gravel Locos race in Hico, Texas.
Police believe Wilson was having a relationship with a man Armstrong was also in a relationship with. The man, another gravel cyclist, Colin Strickland, has since issued a statement on the murder.
In his statement, he said he had a brief romantic relationship with Wilson in October 2021 before he resumed his relationship with Armstrong, but that he remained friends with Wilson. "There is no way to adequately express the regret and torture I feel about my proximity to this horrible crime. I am sorry, and I simply cannot make sense of this unfathomable tragedy.
NEW: Austin professional cyclist Colin Strickland has just released a statement about the murder of cyclist Moriah Wilson, clarifying his relationship with her and expressing “torture about my proximity to this horrible crime.” pic.twitter.com/KnIna3mWrE
— Tony Plohetski (@tplohetski) May 20, 2022
The family of Wilson also issued a statement to KXAN saying it was clear to those close to her that she was not in a romantic relationship with anyone.
Wilson, a 25-year-old Vermont native living in Colorado, had won a slew of races becoming a fan favorite. She had just become a full-time racer this year.
Anyone with information on this crime can contact Austin police at 512-974-TIPS or contact Crime Stoppers anonymously at 512-472-8477.
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