BY VICKI TERWILLIGER
Social distancing is taking a toll on mental health; however, there is help close by.
Mental health care professionals said it’s important to stay busy, keep connected and manage information, and there must be a focus on helping the vulnerable, be that children or the elderly.
Lacie Sampson, program manager for Center for Community Resources in Pottsville, said the agency has been answering phones and offering support for the Pennsylvania Statewide Support and Referral Helpline for COVID-19.
“We are speaking to individuals who are experiencing anxieties related to COVID-19. Most are seeking a listening ear as well as information on outpatient providers and other local resources. They want to feel safe and know that support is available,” Sampson said.
She said after an initial decrease, call volume is rising. The first stay-at-home orders in the state were issued March 23, Schuylkill County and others were added March 30, and the order went statewide April 1.
“We are speaking with individuals who are struggling with not going to work and not being able to socialize, not having a sense of normalcy anymore,” she said.
Dr. Babar M. Choudhry, medical director of behavioral health services, LVH–Schuylkill in Pottsville, and Dr. Kylie Oleski, a licensed clinical psychologist with the Geisinger Mount Pleasant Clinic in Scranton, report children and the elderly face different vulnerabilities during the coronavirus crisis when it comes to social distancing.
“It has a significant impact on how we feel, perceive and behave individually and as a community. The length and intensity required for this restriction is quite overwhelming,” Choudhry said. “It makes them feel different, lonely, isolated and disengaged.”
However, help could be a phone call away — either to a statewide helpline, local crisis center or to a doctor who can engage in a personalized telemedicine session with the patient.
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has partnered with CCR to create and staff the helpline for COVID-19. It’s a 24-hour, 7 days-a-week, listening and referral service provided to all Pennsylvanians during the pandemic. People can call 1-855-284-2494 or TTY 724-631-5600 to speak with a trained specialist.
Sampson at CCR, which has remained operational 24/7 for phone and mobile crisis intervention, said crisis services are available at 1-877-993-4357 or 877-9-WE-HELP.
Following are some guidelines offered in coping with social distancing.
We are not accustomed to being stuck inside for an extended period of time, but staying active is a solid remedy. Structure that includes exercise, healthy meals, reading, limiting media time and looking into simple hobbies are some things to try, Choudhry said.
“I think it is important to maintain a routine for a sense of normalcy in this ever changing time. Activities such as writing, reading, exercising, listening to music and meditating are great ways to keep your mind busy,” Sampson said.
Children are especially vulnerable during the crisis, and adults need to be wary what they say to them.
Oleski said parents should remain calm and reassuring.
“We set the tone for how our children will react. Be present; make yourself available; mitigate media exposure. Be honest and accurate, based on their developmental level. Teach them safety precautions they can follow in their daily lives,” Oleski said.
Choudhry suggested we should be simple in our explanation to children and educate them gradually in a responsible, non-threatening way.
“Let them talk about their concerns and give them honest answers,” he said.
He said we should place more emphasis on healthy living and maintaining cleanliness. We should be more vigilant about our behavior around them, as children understand and learn from unspoken or indirect responses much more than our direct communication.
“Caution yourself about what you say to others when young ones are around you. Like adults, they also fall out of routine. We need to dedicate more time to them and keep them engaged.”
Elderly are the most vulnerable, according to Choudhry.
“We definitely want them to be in physical isolation from visitors. Most of them understand the situation,” he said. “By introducing them to new ways of communication via social media, we can provide them with audio and visual means to connect and interact in these difficult times.”
At the presence of any alarming signs, make a referral to the proper agency to get professional help, he said.
As for the senior population, it’s important to express with them the empathy that we’re feeling, Oleski said.
“Be creative. Visit from your home or porch; have conversations from outside of the yard,” she said.
For everyone, spending time with family, connecting in new ways to people you live with, meaningful use of electronic media, attending numerous support groups online, and attending faith groups online are a few ways to stay connected, according to Choudhry.
“Electronic means of communication are a blessing in these troubling times. We just need to be cautious to avoid any negative content,” he said.
Oleski said there is now a need for more phone calls, email exchanges and video sharing platforms, like Facetime or Zoom. It is also a good time to focus on communicating well and effectively with our housemates.
“It’s important to remain engaged in our household. We all need to accept that conflict is probably going to happen. It’s important not to personalize the behavior. It’s a very tense time for all of us,” she said.
There is a downside to electronic communications.
“We do have tendencies to rely on news media and it can create more panic,” Choudhry said. “Social media also promotes sensational and catastrophic memes. One needs to limit their exposure to such negative information to prevent excessive worries. We need to have updated information from our public health and governmental agencies. We need to remember that modern science has given us simple means to prevent a deadly virus by practicing safe distancing and proper hygiene for a certain period of time. It is effective, and by doing so you are participating in a bigger cause for others.”
Oleski offers a few action steps:
- Stay informed with viable and reliable resources and keep fact-checking.
- Limit media exposure. Be educated and informed, but not flooded.
- Stay busy, exercise, work on projects, practice yoga, deep breathing, meditation.
- Maintain a rational perspective.
It is natural to have differences with people, especially in stressful times, according to Choudhry. Working on communication and tolerance building, having mindfulness of others and giving them space is mandatory, he suggests.
Meanwhile, during the pandemic, CCR has received approval to provide telehealth services, Sampson said. This allows the agency to speak with, or see, an individual through electronic apps on a computer or phone.
“We have noticed that this has helped relieve some fears of face-to-face contact,” she said.
CCR is still able to provide face-to-face contact with those who may don’t have access to the needed technology.
“We utilize the proper precautions to keep both the individual and the crisis counselor safe,” Sampson said.
Crisis services are available to any population seeking support and referrals.
“We have been speaking with individuals across the spectrum; children/adolescents, adults and the geriatric population in the community as well as nursing homes. We have also been speaking to many individuals that are seeking support and help for their loved ones,” Sampson said.
Telemedicine is a good option for patients to stay in touch with their health care providers, Choudhry and Oleski agreed.
Telemedicine is now able to offer health screenings related to the current pandemic and is offered by almost every health care agency, Choudhry said.
Spiritual and psychological counseling is also available via telephone. This is extremely advantageous for members of the community during this time, he said.
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