Mental Health and the COVID-19 Pandemic Rosemary Ketchum October 19, 2020 Has this year felt as long to you as it has to me? Your answer is probably, yes. As we recognize October as National Mental Health Month, it’s a good time to check-in with ourselves as we continue to navigate the ongoing stress and anxiety many of us are feeling as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In March, the world seemed to stop. We emptied store shelves, we bought all the hand sanitizer available, and we collectively boarded up inside our homes. Since March 26th, the U.S has led the world in confirmed coronavirus cases, experiencing a rocky and tumultuous timeline of events that has left 216,000 dead and over 7 million infected. This is the stark reality in which we are living and the importance of our individual and collective wellbeing has never been more significant. While we are all aware of the consequences this pandemic could have on our physical health, we may be ignoring its serious impact on our mental health. Social isolation, unemployment, school closings, and the fear of being infected all take an immeasurable toll on our mental health and unless we are working to combat its negative effects, we could be in serious trouble. In a KFF Tracking Poll conducted in mid-July, 53% of adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. For some of us, this newfound stress and anxiety are somewhat manageable, but for many, they present themselves as incredibly difficult daily obstacles. According to the U.S Government, Mental disorders are among some of the most common disabilities in America. “In any given year, an estimated 18.1% (43.6 million) of U.S. adults ages 18 years or older suffered from any mental illness and 4.2% (9.8 million) suffered from a seriously debilitating mental illness.” While the statistics illustrate a dangerous and scary reality, there are actionable ways we can all combat the stress and anxiety this pandemic – and life itself, presents. Julie Gomez from the National Alliance On Mental Illness (NAMI) Greater Wheeling, breaks down what we can do to stay healthy. “It’s important for us to focus on what we can control during a stressful and potentially traumatic time like this. Gomez says, “Keeping a positive attitude; listening to the health experts; taking a break from the news; limiting time on social media; focus on your own social distancing; setting priorities that are fun and interesting are all examples of what we can control and will help support our overall mental health.” NAMI Greater Wheeling hosts telehealth support groups and a Mental Health Drop-In Center in Wheeling at their 1035 Chapline Street location. Although it may be difficult to prioritize things like mindfulness, therapy, and medical intervention, these things serve as effective preventive and maintenance measures – especially for our youngsters. If you’re living with children during the quarantine, Licensed Counselor, Heather Wells Sexton has some advice for you. “If you’re quarantined with children, try your best to maintain a routine. Maybe it’s not the routine everyone is used to, but maintaining some sort of structure is important for children and adults during this pandemic,” Sexton remarks. “If that isn’t possible every day, give yourself grace. Right now we are figuring it all out.” Sexton is a Relationship and Sex counselor and founder at Rivers and Roads Psychotherapy in St. Clairsville, Ohio. During COVID-19, our access to in-person mental health services is often limited. Therefore many organizations have been expanding their online telehealth options. Jenna Richardson from Crittenton Services, describes their work in a quarantined world. “During the COVID-19 crisis Wellspring’s online counseling platform has been utilized more than ever as stress levels and anxiety are on the rise.” “We anticipated a shift in the way counseling would be delivered in the future. This service has been invaluable in reaching clients who are handicapped, or living in remote areas, as is the case in many rural areas in West Virginia.” Wellspring Family Services is an out-patient community-based mental health counseling division of Crittenton Services, Inc. which began developing telehealth capabilities in 2016. Finding healthy ways to cope with feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear is incredibly important for us all – not just those living with a mental health condition. Heather Wells Sexton describes creative ways we can maintain our mental and physical health while this pandemic lasts. “While we are at home and taking care of our physical bodies, let’s make sure we are taking care of our psychological needs as well. Stay connected with others, incorporate a self-care routine daily and limit your daily intake of COVID-19 information and social media. Focus on one day at a time and be mindful of yourself on that day. There are so many resources right now for mental health tools like mindfulness apps, yoga studios practicing online and podcasts to explore new interests and experiences. Take this time to just be present, and show up for yourself every day. We will get through this.” So, here’s the breakdown. Focus on what you can control: It can be easy to get caught up in all the things that are out of our control, but if we want to stay well, it’s best to focus on what is within our immediate control. Clean out your fridge, reply to those emails you’ve been procrastinating on (just me?), and find time to breathe. Doing things like this will help keep you centered and focused. Control your exposure to the news: We know all too well that the chaos of the 24/7 news cycle is unhealthy and, while I have absolutely no room to talk, as a borderline obsessed news consumer myself, I completely understand the need for a break. Although good information is critical right now and potentially life-saving, we do not need to be glued to the TV or our phones. Look for news that is neutral and fact-based and discover outlets that don’t seek to cause your cortisol levels to spike. Practice Mindfulness: Easier said than done – but nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Mindfulness has been quite the buzzword recently but for good reason. Practicing mindfulness is not only good for our mind but also for our entire body. Mindfulness is all about being present and thoughtful; think of focused breathing exercises as a good example. Find support: At the end of the day, there is only so much we can do on our own. Finding support is an important way to care for our mental health. Support can come in a variety of ways – both formal and informal. Host a Zoom chat with some close friends, reach out to your family, or find a doctor. There are many options for mental health support and many are accessible right from your couch! We may not know what the future holds but we can all do our part to shape it for the better. Practicing mindfulness, battling stigma, and seeking professional help will all be critical in building resilience and improving overall health. And, at the end of the day, we are all in this together. If you’re interested in accessing any of the services mentioned, look below for more information. FIND MORE RESOURCES HERE www.headspace.com http://www.wv211.org/ (West Virginia Crisis line) https://www.mental-health-recovery.org/crisis-line (Ohio crisis line) https://www.wheelingyoga.com/ (Yoga and meditation offerings) https://www.mindful.org/free-mindfulness-apps-worthy-of-your-attention/ (Mindfulness apps) www.psychologytoday.com (Find a local therapist) www.crittentonwv.org or by calling the Wheeling Wellspring office at (304) 242-7060 https://www.riversandroadspsychotherapyllc.com/who-we-are https://namiwheeling.org/ • Rosemary Ketchum is a member of the Wheeling City Council representing Ward 3. Rosemary is associate director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Greater Wheeling Drop-in Center and on the boards of several organizations including the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. She has served as a guest on MSNBC and has been profiled by several publications including Time Magazine, CBS and CNN for her work in community organizing and politics. 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