See this week's centerspread on ways to cope with stress during the pandemic.
Mental health professionals are seeing new mental health issues emerge as people cope with self-isolation and job loss due to the coronavirus.
There’s been a dramatic increase in calls to a hotline set up by the Westchester County Department of Mental Health by people seeking support for new or emerging mental health conditions.
“We’ve received over 200 calls in the last two weeks where many people who don’t have pre-existing conditions are anxious or depressed and are seeking services,” said Michael Orth, commissioner of Westchester Department of Community Mental Health. “Our clinics haven’t seen an increase. The psychiatric hospital census is pretty stable, if not lower. Our outpatient clinics are not overwhelmed at this time. Most of the hospital services are being done remotely. So our traditional system hasn’t really felt the impact, but clearly, as this goes on for longer periods of time, we have seen an increase of people struggling with anxiety, isolation and lack of connectedness.”
Juliette Sussmann, a licensed mental health counselor who operates a private practice in Katonah, said that the mental effects of the global pandemic can take a toll on everyone.
“In general, people are struggling, but I believe they also work to stay present. I think this affects people with or without previous mental health issues,” Sussmann said. “It certainly can create more anxiety in people because the unknown creates a fight-or-flight feeling. I think there’s an increase in fear due to not knowing what’s next and there’s also life and death issues that people haven’t had to deal with before.”
Sussmann added that in her opinion, clients who were already engaging in some form of therapy before the pandemic may be more resilient during this time because they have an understanding of their own mental health and practice using coping mechanisms.
Pamela M. Marinelli, an LMHC who operates a private practice in Mahopac, said one of the biggest emotions people are dealing with right now is grief.
“It’s a loss of the way things used to be and loss of jobs, loss of contact, the grief of not being able to see your family, ” Marinelli said.
With recent major holidays like Easter and Passover, many families missed out on that time to connect, she added.
“I know people who have lost loved ones right now and have not been able to grieve those people how they typically would in person. I think grief and loss are a huge part of this,” Marinelli said.
Self-isolation and quarantine can also bring about symptoms of mental health conditions for people who normally might not struggle.
“In a situation like this, everybody’s vulnerabilities are heightened, even [in] people who didn’t realize they had vulnerabilities around anxiety or depression,” said Eric Toth, a licensed master social worker and the CEO of CoveCare Center. “I think people who are anxious are feeling more anxious, people who were feeling isolated and depressed are feeling more isolated and depressed. People who relied on substances for a variety of reasons and used them in ways that aren’t healthy for them are going to quite possibly escalate that use. The other thing that is probably a little hidden, and again, I think will be the next wave of need, is the rise in domestic violence, specifically partner violence. In the normal environment, it’s hard for people to get out of those situations very often; in the current environment, it makes it extraordinarily more difficult for people to get out of those environments.”
One thing Toth was specifically concerned about is that often calls to Child Protective Services are made by school personnel. Without teachers having those in-person interactions, he worries abuse could go unnoticed.
“(School is) where kids spend a lot of their time and where professionals can recognize the signs and symptoms of child abuse,” Toth said. “I’m very concerned for those kids who don’t have the chance to disclose or be observed to show that they’re being abused.”
Marinelli also expressed her concern about seeing spikes in domestic abuse and substance abuse disorder with many people being cut off from their normal routines.
“These are issues that thrive on isolation and so if people are stuck at home and struggling, that is also an issue and a fear of mine that people are suffering in silence,” Marinelli said.
She added that people are having to overcome the obstacle of reaching out through digital platforms to seek help. However, some organizations have come up with ways to provide support to all residents in one space.
Alliance for Safe Kids in Yorktown has compiled a database of resources that can help a variety of people overcome issues during the pandemic. It’s as simple as scanning a QR code with your smartphone camera and it takes you to multiple pages containing support hotlines, text numbers, virtual meetings and even a YouTube link for the elderly that will teach them how to use FaceTime.
“We’ve been looking at so many different things, such as how to support the youth, our parents and caregivers that are wearing so many different hats while they’re at home with their families, and our seniors,” ASK Executive Director Liz Talbert said. “We thought this would be an ideal thing for the community, to have a portal of sorts where we could keep all this information in one place.”
She added that she is continuously updating the database and is asking for the public’s help in finding more resources.
“I’m just asking people to send me an email. It doesn’t even have to have a message, just send me the link so that we may take a look at it,” Talbert said.
Westchester County has also set up a hotline and hired additional staff to help people dealing with new mental struggles.
“We set up the telephone line where we had our professionals respond and problem-solve, troubleshoot,” Orth said. “We connect people to our mental health community-based agencies, and we’re also fortunate to have about 60 clinicians who are providing pro bono services for those people who may be struggling and really don’t need long-term treatment, but just need somebody to talk to and some short-term support.”
Toth said that CoveCare is currently accepting new clients who may feel they need more in-depth treatment at this time.
“If someone calls Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., the front desk should be able to field their call and begin the process,” Toth said.
He also said that anyone who needs immediate support should contact the United Way 211 hotline, which covers a wide variety of issues, including substance abuse and domestic violence.
“I think it’s a great time for neighbors to be checking in on each other. Family members, friends should be checking in on people who they think could be vulnerable to anything,” Toth said.
While all mental health professionals have recommended maintaining a daily routine, eating healthy and making sure to get a healthy dose of sunshine and fresh air to stave off the moody blues, Marinelli recommended following the three elements of self-compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneering self-compassion researcher, author and teacher.
First, don’t compare your suffering to what someone else is going through. Second, practice self-kindness.
“It’s OK if you didn’t accomplish all of these things that you set out for and it’s OK if you didn’t learn a new skill or read a new book today, whatever it is,” Marinelli said.
Third, she said, is to practice mindfulness, being conscious of one’s thoughts and come from a place of non-judgment when evaluating those thoughts.
She added it is best to share your thoughts with someone you trust, but if you don’t have a support system, write it down in a journal or reach out for support.
Sussmann recommended working on staying in the present and taking things one day at a time, reminding people that they can always reset their day, use mindfulness and distract themselves and focus on the things they like to keep their mind in the present.
“This too shall pass. We’re going to get through this together and it’s important to stay positive and do your best to stay in the present,” Sussmann said.
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