Mental health and COVID-19: Practice kindness, connect with others, journal

March 22, 2020

By: Jessica Gibbs

Originally appeared in the Highlands Ranch Herald

With a global pandemic closing schools, businesses, entire communities and threatening people’s livelihoods in addition to their health, it can be difficult to stifle the anxiety, stress and fear coming with the crisis.

“I think the public is very scared and I think that there’s a lot of fear and anxiety because there’s so much uncertainty,” said Cynthia Grant, chief clinical officer for AllHealth Network, a behavioral health nonprofit offering services throughout the Denver metro area.

Vincent Atchity, president and CEO of the statewide nonprofit Mental Health Colorado, believes a tipping point came when organizations started canceling events and closing offices in mid-March as COVID-19 concerns mounted.

“Once the school districts started going, that creates this dramatic ripple effect,” he said.

Still, there are ways to cope, manage the mental health challenges, and yes, find joy in the days and weeks ahead.

Abigail Tucker, chief clinical officer at the Westminster-based Community Reach Center, said it’s important that people focus on their mental well-being in addition to their physical health while responding to the pandemic.

“People are sometimes still forgetting that health includes your mental health,” Tucker said.

What’s normal, what’s not?

Additional stress and anxiety at a time like this is a common and collective experience, Atchity, Grant and Tucker said. Just how much is normal will vary for each person, but clear signs emerge when someone is struggling with his or her mental health.

“Everybody reacts differently to stressful situations so normal is definitely a very wide range,” Grant said.

Being isolated and quarantined can add to the challenge.

“It can make people feel really helpless, that there’s really nothing they can do,” Grant said, “and I think that all of that is normal.”

For people with existing mental health conditions, times of crises can be exceptionally tough. Grant said some of their clients with mental illness were stable before the pandemic but are not any longer. People with trauma histories can experience more flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety in the stressful environment.

Tucker’s center had more calls on March 16 than it had all year, she said, although the number of calls was not immediately available. Callers had a mix of needs. Some were new clients in search of service, others were rescheduling appointments and more wanted information about Telehealth appointments. Both AllHealth and Community Reach Center are seeing increased demand for services along with Telehealth, which allows people to access treatment remotely.

The pandemic “can also have a peculiar effect if somebody is used to living with bipolar disorder or depression,” Atchity said. “In collective unsettlement, they can suddenly find they are the calm ones and are more unflappable, like, `OK, now you understand my world.’ ”

When in doubt, the three said, reach out to a local provider with questions about mental health. Tucker said a good way to gauge whether your reaction is healthy is to reach out to a trusted loved one and ask how he or she has perceived your response. Are they worried about you?

How to cope, offer support

Atchity urged the community to find ways to quell panic even in the midst of crisis “so that we’re not defeated by our anxiety.”

There are many ways to keep spirits up and fears at bay during the pandemic, Tucker, Grant and Atchity said.

Stay busy. Cross that home improvement project off the to-do list. Bake cookies. Go outside. Appreciate the world’s natural beauty. Play with the kids. Clean the house. Walk the dog. Journal. Eat a healthy diet and exercise — both can affect one’s mood and stress level.

Stay up to date and keep informed, and change practices as recommended, but don’t obsess over checking the news or information floating around online.

“Control your flow of information,” Atchity said.

And go ahead, watch those popular plague movies or find one of the COVID-19 playlists trending on Spotify.

“That’s great. That’s funny,” Atchity said. “That’s the beautiful, funny thing about humans.”

Socializing while social distancing

Atchity, Grant and Tucker stressed the need for people to stay connected with one another, ground themselves in their humanity and practice kindness throughout the pandemic.

“The idea of connecting with other people is something that we are very much advocating,” Grant said. “Social distancing doesn’t mean you can’t connect with people.”

Use all the technology available to stay in touch with loved ones. Text, phone calls, social media, Facetime, and so on. If someone isn’t familiar with the high-tech tools, use the extra time at home to learn.

“Social distancing does not need to be emotional distancing,” Tucker said.

Most people depend on social interaction, which contributes to someone’s sense of being supported, feeling safe and staying mentally and emotionally healthy, Atchity said.

“There are so few of us who are true hermits and thrive in total isolation,” Atchity said.

Don’t be afraid to check on people if there’s reason to worry about them, he said. Tucker also cautioned friends and family looking to support someone struggling with their mental health should be prepared to help them find resources.

“The way we really turn this disruption to our advantage as a community is to take some of this down time and really put it toward one another with human connection,” Atchity said.