The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania has rapidly risen to 1,127, according to the state Department of Health update Wednesday. Lancaster County has 12 confirmed cases. Mental health is a serious concern amid this pandemic. “Anxiety thrives on the fear of the unknown,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Jenelle Janci wrote last week. “And when the world is in an unprecedented state of pandemic, there’s a lot of unknowns on which it can feed.”
It is crucial to acknowledge and discuss the anxiety many of us — if not all of us — feel in these uncertain times.
Mental health — our own and that of others — should not be ignored or downplayed. In fact, we should prioritize it. Maintaining our mental health will help us come out strong on the other side of this public health emergency. Suppressing our emotions can only make things worse.
“One of the best things that people can do is keep themselves as balanced as possible in every way that’s possible,” Karen Carnabucci, an alternative psychotherapist who practices in Lancaster city, told Janci.
Jessica Taylor, a WellSpan Philhaven therapist, suggests “not being afraid to discuss your feelings surrounding (the pandemic) with people that you love who are able to support you.”
Every demographic is affected in some way by COVID-19: children who can barely comprehend what’s happening in their world; teens and young adults who might wonder what the future now holds for them; medical and health professionals on the front lines of battling the virus; adults who may be disregarding their own needs while simultaneously attending to their children and their aging parents; and the elderly, who may find themselves suddenly cut off from loved ones due to necessary social distancing.
This can also be, as Janci notes, an extra-difficult time for those with anxiety disorders: “A national emergency such as the battle to slow the spread of COVID-19 can make (their) already innate fears skyrocket.”
Likewise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that people with substance use disorders are at greater risk of mental health problems during a crisis.
We must, of course, have different approaches for addressing the mental health of individuals in all of these disparate groups. But there is some good general advice that may work well for many.
The state Department of Health offers a rundown of some of the basics: eat healthy meals, exercise, get enough sleep, find time to unwind each day, avoid drugs and alcohol, and take regular breaks from social media and the onslaught of news updates.
“To help overcome uncertainty, normality and routine that mirrors life’s daily patterns and practices can be helpful,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness states in its COVID-19 guide. “Structure and routine may be helpful for people with mental health vulnerabilities, especially during times of uncertainty.”
In dealing with children and teenagers, the CDC emphasizes that their reactions are based, in part, on how they see the adults around them acting. We should keep that in mind.
For them, mental health issues may manifest in ways that are not immediately obvious to us. They may revert to behaviors they had outgrown; develop unhealthy eating habits; have difficulty concentrating; and avoid activities they have enjoyed in the past.
We should make time to talk with our children and teens about the pandemic, share facts, debunk misinformation, and make sure we’re conveying all of this in ways that are age-appropriate and understandable.
“Let them know it is OK if they feel upset,” the CDC states. “Share with them how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn how to cope from you.”
Then there are seniors — parents, grandparents and other loved ones we might not be able to see in person for necessary safety reasons.
We cannot risk exposing members of this vulnerable group to COVID-19, but we must also address their feelings of isolation and loneliness.
“On one hand, you have to protect older people from the virus,” psychologist James S. House told the American Psychological Association. “On the other, we’re cutting them off from one of the things that’s very important to their well-being.”
We must find ways to reach out them. We can establish regular social connections with phone calls, video chats, and even old-fashioned cards and letters through the mail. We can make sure our children use these avenues to stay connected to their grandparents.
We should also do what we can to check on the well-being of seniors living alone in our neighborhoods. Beyond just checking to see if they need help with errands, we can give them someone to talk to regularly — from a safe distance, of course.
We can’t address every different aspect of mental health in this editorial. But there are excellent resources and help available. Among them:
— The CDC page “Manage Anxiety & Stress” at bit.ly/CDCmentalhealth.
— The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a 13-page guide at bit.ly/NAMIdoc.
— Nationwide Children’s Hospital offers tips for talking to your children at bit.ly/TalkKids1.
— If you need help coping, the state Department of Health urges you to text PA to 741-741.
— The National Alliance on Mental Illness also has a hotline at 800-950-6264.
Additionally, look for an op-ed in this Sunday’s Perspective section from Dr. John P. Shand, a psychiatrist for WellSpan Philhaven.
Please share these resources with those who may need them.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has as its motto “You are not alone.” We must all ensure that — even as we are physically separated from each other — it indeed remains the case that no one is alone.