PATERSON, NJ – A group of New Jersey legislators recently kicked off a weekly Facebook Live series to help keep residents safe, healthy and informed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With New Jersey under a near shutdown state, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-31), Assemblywoman Shanique Speight (D-29) and Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-34) sought to find a way to stay connected with their communities and people are armed with up-to-date information.

On any given day, there’s a lot of information being released from various state agencies and Gov. Phil Murphy’s office regarding the public health emergency and it can be overwhelming for residents and businesses, so McKnight said they wanted to “provide clear, direct information.”

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Each Thursday at 7:30 p.m., they plan to host a live video on a variety of topics and include appearances from special guests, like the state Commissioner of Education and the state Department of Children and Family Services’ commissioner. Viewers can also send in questions, McKnight said.

“Between the three of us, we have a large base, so we’re able to reach masses,” McKnight said. “We’re going to do it every week until the pandemic is over.”

COVID-19’s Mental Health Impact

More than 3,000 people tuned in to the first live stream, which focused on how the virus is impacting the black community. 

Panelists included Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-35), who is an associate vice president of behavioral health for Hackensack University Medical Center at Mountainside, Dr. Omar Bey, a critical care pulmonary physician, and Dr. Denise Rodgers, vice chancellor at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Services/Professor at Rutgers RWJ Medical School.

One aspect of last week’s discussion revolved around the effect that crisis will have on our mental health, Sumter said.

“A big part of the issue is the fear and anxiety people feel. We’re in a new normal, where the safety nets have literally been taken from us,” Sumter said. “If you think of 9/11, it was one episode and then we were in recovery mode. What we’re dealing with now has been ongoing since March. While we believe it has hit its peak, there are still so many unknowns,” she said.

Feeling depressed, stressed, anxious or worried is completely understandable, given the extreme circumstances, but it could mean many are suffering in silence and isolation, Sumter said.

Right now, many people may be focused more on their physical health – taking extra precautions to prevent infection and keeping an eye out for COVID-19 symptoms but taking care of your mental well-being is just as important.

On an almost daily basis, Sumter shares mental health tips on social media, suggesting simple tasks people can do to boost their mood, such as having a chat with a loved one or going for a 30-minute walk.

“Mental health needs to be part of your daily being and you have to have mindfulness of what you’re feeling. When you’re too busy to feel, addiction becomes a way of removing yourself from reality. When we’re facing this reality of fear and anxiety, it’s important to find a positive outlet – baking, home projects, reconnecting with family on Skype, Facebook, Zoom or other mediums, yoga or reading. I want folks to connect and have self-inflection.”

During last week’s Facebook live session, Sumter said the goal was to validate people’s feelings because “talking about it helps reduce the stigma.”

In the black community, people may be struggling as they self-isolate from others in the name of safety, she said.

“Gathering is a big part of the black community and having to distance oneself is not the norm,” Sumter said. “Losing the ability to gather with loved ones at their homes or at church creates a void.”

There’s been “a lot of smart ideas” and new uses for technology that have come about recently, including streaming church services online and hosting meetings of spiritual groups online.

Sumter encouraged people to try out some of those alternatives, whether it’s virtually attending church or doing a quick video chat with relatives.

“It’s not traditional, but it helps you to connect with others,” she said.

Sumter also let people know about a newly-launched state resource for those who may be struggling. Anyone who needs to talk to someone for free phone counseling and emotional support can reach out to NJ Mental Health Cares at 1-866-202-HELP, a toll-free hotline from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. 

“All of these things weren’t in place six weeks ago. I’m super proud of the Governor and his administration for doubling down on it and moving mountains,” she said.

 

Future Episodes In The Works

This week’s episode will focus on how to navigate social services, like welfare, unemployment and New Jersey’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, McKnight said.

Future topics may include: financial literacy, what resources are available for small businesses, tips for parents helping their children with virtual learning and senior services. McKnight said they’d also like to plan a special episode just for kids.

“We want to be able to touch everyone on a weekly basis,” McKnight said, adding, “We’re open to suggestions.”

McKnight encouraged residents to reach out with questions that are on their minds or suggestions for topics they’d like covered each week. 

 

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