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Mental health: Coping in the pandemic

October 1, 2020

This year has been like no other, and it’s hard to envision a change any time soon. We’ve touched on many COVID-19 related topics in this publication, and now it’s time to focus on our mental health. October is a good time for the topic – it’s getting darker earlier, the weather is turning cooler and gradually inhibiting outdoor activities. Many of these external factors affect our mental well-being. Perhaps that’s why we recognize National Depression Screening Day on October 8, World Mental Health Day on October 10 and Mental Health Awareness Week October 4 through 10.

Taylor Wolfe, Licensed Social Worker and Clinical Supervisor of the NCH Behavioral Health Intake Department, took time to answer some pandemic-related mental health questions.

Q: How are you reaching people during the pandemic?

A: Fortunately, behavioral health agencies across the country have expanded their services to include tele-therapy to service those in need from the comfort of their homes. NCH Behavioral Health also offers virtual services through the Kirchoff Center, our new outpatient behavioral health clinic where people can seek treatment such as individual counseling, medication management and addiction services.

Q: How are health systems taking care of the mental health of their frontline workers during this pandemic?

A: Health systems across the nation have been taking different approaches to care for the emotional health of frontline workers. Some hospitals have implemented designated “relaxation” spaces where frontline workers can take breaks throughout the day to meditate, grab a snack or just process the stress of their day. Here at NCH, the Behavioral Health Department established a COVID-19 Support Line staffed with master’s degree level clinicians to offer support and guidance to our peers who have been working tirelessly to treat those affected by COVID-19.

Q: I’ve noticed that my loved one has been struggling since the start of the pandemic. Are there certain warning signs I should look out for?

A: Keeping in touch with friends and family, especially during times like these, is very important. One of the earliest warning signs is any decline in self-care or basic hygiene. Pay attention if your loved one has suddenly started neglecting their normal hygiene tasks, are not eating regularly, sleeping too much or not sleeping enough. Other signs include marked changes in their behavior and ability to maintain daily responsibilities and personal relationships. If your friend or loved one starts to make statements suggesting they feel like a burden to others, are experiencing feelings of hopelessness or are having thoughts of wanting to end their life, please seek help immediately.

Q: What are some tips to help cope with depression?

A: Aside from the common recommendations to exercise regularly, maintain a healthy diet and get plenty of rest, there are many other tools we encourage when coping with depression.

  1. Make an intentional attempt to engage in behavior opposite of what you are feeling. For example, when feeling anxious or stressed, listen to one of your favorite “pump up” songs or watch a motivational speaker to boost courage and a sense of mastery. When feelings of depression arise, watch a funny movie or listen to a funny podcast and have a good laugh.
  2. Avoid avoiding. A hallmark symptom of depression is avoidance. That is, avoiding people, responsibilities and avoiding thoughts and feelings. To improve our emotional health, it’s important to acknowledge and confront our thoughts and feelings through activities like talking to a friend or journaling. Continue to engage in your day-to-day responsibilities to the best of your ability. When you feel you can no longer keep up with these daily tasks, you might want to look into talking to a mental health professional.
  3. Be mindful of positive experiences. Although many view mindfulness as a skill to use during times of stress, it’s equally as important to practice mindfulness when things are going well. By engaging in mindfulness, we not only learn to breathe through the uncomfortable feelings, but we intensify our positive experiences, thereby improving our overall quality of life.

Q: How do I help my children cope with the stress of the pandemic?

A: The pandemic has posed many emotional challenges for children and their parents. It’s important to normalize negative feelings with children. Try to empathize with children and express an understanding of how they are feeling. We convey acceptance of our child’s emotions by encouraging them to ask questions and talk about their thoughts and feelings. Be honest with your children and let them know that you share some of their same feelings. We often recommend practicing relaxation techniques with your child as it is a good way to model positive coping. Exercises such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing and visual imagery often work just as well for children as they do for adults.

Q: Help! Virtual learning is not easy!

A: There is no easy answer to tackling the challenges of virtual learning, but we can take what we know to be true about treating children who struggle with concentration and restlessness and apply these skills to the particular challenges we face today. Try to keep a schedule that is similar to the one implemented during a normal school day. Schedule time for lunch breaks and time outside. It’s also helpful to have a designated learning space within the home that is used only for school time, limiting distractions in this space such as TV or cell phones. Try to discourage virtual learning while in bed or other areas that are associated with rest and playtime. Taking small breaks and rewarding a child’s ability to stay focused with things such as extra screen time or their favorite snack will go a long way.

Q: “Self-care” is good, but where does self-care end and professional treatment begin?

A: Self-care should be incorporated into everyone’s daily routine; however, it’s also important to know when your regular “self-care” regimen just isn’t quite enough. It’s a good idea to seek professional help when your normal self-care routines aren’t helping to manage day-to-day stress or when your emotional distress is preventing you from being able to engage in self-care activities.

Q: I haven’t been able to find treatment for my specific needs. How do I get help?

A: Since the start of the pandemic, there are many groups of people with unique needs that haven’t been able to access their normal treatment providers or support networks. If you are struggling to access these services, first try to reach out to peers in similar situations. Sponsors and mentors are great points of contact to learn about available resources. There are also many online platforms for people such as those in 12-step programming to seek advice from peers on how to cope or where to seek help. See the links below to find out how to access these platforms and other support networks.

If peer support isn’t helpful, contact your local hospital or community mental health center. There are still plenty of services out there that can assist in locating treatment specific to your needs.

Q: How am I supposed to deal with and prepare for “cabin fever” coming this winter after already being stuck at home all summer?

A: Each week, try making a daily schedule that includes time for rest, leisure activities and time with friends and family. Schedule at least one or two fun outings or activities each week so you have something to look forward to. Although you may not be planning a destination vacation, scheduling time to give yourself a facial, play video games or visit your favorite restaurant can help offset that quarantine angst.

Q: Speaking of being stuck at home, what are some ways I can deal with my family while always at home together?

A: No matter how much we love our family, we all need our own space. It’s always a good idea to set boundaries with your loved ones. Let them know when you need time to yourself or when you will be busy working on a project. It’s also important to let them know when you’ll be available to spend time with them.

There may be times when you can’t avoid family conflict while confined at home. Try developing your own “fair fighting” rules to deescalate arguments and come to a resolution sooner. Start by limiting the discussion to focus on one topic or problem at a time. Take turns talking, and allow each person a chance to walk away if the argument starts to get too heated or personal. If a break is needed, be sure to come back and finish the discussion a short time later.

Starting with a free, confidential assessment, NCH offers a range of services for behavioral health and chemical dependency treatment.

Interested in additional resources to address the impact of COVID-19? Visit jcfs.org/COVID-19-community-resources

Looking for a support group specific to you? Check out mhanational.org/find-support-groups

Join a community of individuals and their families who are affected by mental illness with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

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