As Twin County residents say goodbye to life as we know it for the foreseeable future, our new reality is having an impact on our psyche, experts say.
Many employees are working from home and students and teachers alike are learning about virtual classroom dynamics, as COVID-19 continues its siege.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that more than 6,000 mental health professionals have volunteered to provide online services.
“Most of us have never faced anything like this before,” Mental Health Association of New York State CEO Glenn Liebman said.
The unprecedented circumstances can lead to an increased risk of anxiety and depression.
“The important thing we keep talking about is social distancing is not social isolation,” Liebman said. “The worst thing that could happen is if we don’t make sure when we’re working remotely that we’re not isolated, that we’re doing something with other people or with physical exercise, or we’re connecting with our friends and colleagues through some kind of connections to the community and our friends. We need to keep people in a normalized environment in an uncertain situation, to look for outlets with our wellness.”
Columbia County Community Services Director Michael Cole echoed similar suggestions.
“My suggestion to anyone that is concerned is to limit our watching the news, to restrict that in some way,” Cole said. “Instead of binge watching the news, binge watch romantic comedies or things like that. Focus on what we know. For those that can be active, be as physically active as possible. Avoid drug or alcohol use at this time. I also recommend that we think of social distancing more as physical distancing. We are social and need to stay connected with others and remind ourselves we’re not alone. It’s very helpful for each of us to check in with others we know are in need.”
Licensed Clinical Social Worker Psychotherapist Stacie Speed, who has a private practice in Hudson, recommends puzzles, adult coloring books, reading, meditation, mindfulness skills, communicating via telephone and videochat, journaling, walking and indoor exercise.
Cole emphasized that the situation is only temporary.
“Now more than ever we have to stay in the moment,” he said. “We have to bring ourselves back to the moment when our minds start to drift to what-if scenarios.”
The stress of the virus may result in what Cole described as “pandemic fatigue.”
“There will be an experience for us as we go through the weeks or maybe months as our bodies go through fight-or-flight mode,” he said. “We’re responding to the barrage of news and we’re responding to a whole different set of circumstances than we’re used to. Our level of energy for that is bound to wax and wane. I would not be surprised if part of what we experience is exhaustion.”
It is important to be mindful of people who may be isolating themselves during this time such as elderly individuals who live alone, Liebman said.
“A lot of them are just isolated and can’t get out,” Liebman said. “If people live near someone they know is isolated, they should try to connect to them and see if they need help or support.”
COVID-19 could exacerbate circumstances for those struggling with anxiety, depression or addiction, Cole said.
Columbia Memorial Health has experienced an increase in psychiatric emergencies, Cole said.
“People who are struggling with depression or anxiety, add this to their life, the fear of the virus, the fear of being left alone and being isolated, and it gets worse,” Speed said. “When you’re a person who struggles with a thought disorder like schizophrenia, imagine being on the regular being paranoid and then having this happen. Where you’re told to stay in, don’t go around people. People are dying. People are going around with masks. This is enough to send them over the edge. Just the average Joe who is staying home every day and never has before. I think people realize how much they prefer the contact with people at the office.”
Speed predicts an increase in mental illness, an increase in symptoms experienced by those with mental illness, an increase in drug and alcohol use, a rise in overdoses and a rise in suicides, she said.
Isolation can hold different meanings depending on the context, Liebman said.
“Solitude is not a bad thing,” he said. “Some people are very comfortable being by themselves. When I’m talking about isolation, they might be very anxious and depressed, they might have suicidal thoughts. Those are people we’re most concerned about.”
This type of isolation can be bad for the mind, Speed said.
“When you have a mental illness and you isolate, that gives your mind the opportunity to race,” she said. “When you’re mentally ill, your thoughts are not always good thoughts. When you have contact with people, we talk, we laugh, there’s touching or hugging. Now there’s isolation. People are left alone with their own thoughts.”
This type of isolation is not voluntary, Speed added.
“Even if you like being alone, this isn’t being alone,” she said. “This is an emergency. You aren’t choosing to be alone. This isn’t a choice.”
Another demographic impacted by social distancing is individuals in recovery, Greener Pathways Program Director Carl Quinn said.
“People who actively use and people who are in early recovery are the people who are struggling the most,” Quinn said Wednesday. “We are seeing more overdoses occur in Columbia County. We had two additional overdoses — one last night and one early this morning. The Columbia County [overdose] number dramatically increased this month.”
Quinn believes the lack of traditional support meetings has something to do with the increase, he said.
“They aren’t getting to traditional meetings,” he said. “That support system has really been taken away at this point.”
Greener Pathways is offering daily calls at 2 p.m. through Zoom where clients can talk with a clinician and a peer advocate, Quinn said.
“Our peer advocates are reaching out to people on our caseload daily to see if they are doing OK on food, medicine, if they need other connections to resources or if they just need to talk,” Quinn said. “Nobody has to do this alone. A lot of people feel alone but they don’t have to do that.”
Greener Pathways did outreach at motels in the community on Tuesday and planned to go again Thursday, Quinn said.
“We had soup donated by Mermaid Cafe, Narcan, granola bars, water, lists of resources,” Quinn said, adding that they visited about 18 people.
Many mental health professionals are also adapting their approach, Liebman said, by offering telehealth services.
“It’s not the same as one-on-one in-person but under the circumstances it’s a strong tool,” he said.
The state has eased restrictions to make this type of service more accessible to patients, Liebman added.
Cole and his team transitioned to a 100% mobile clinic within one week, he said.
“Our clinic services have been modified but there was no interruption in services,” Cole said. “We converted to 100% mobile services. Our staff are at home conducting all services by telephone. I am really proud of our staff for stepping up and mobilizing.”
Columbia County’s 24/7 crisis service line is 518-828-9446.
To schedule a free appointment, New Yorkers can call the state’s mental health hotline at 1-844-863-9314.