Mental health expert: Take care of your self and others during pandemic

by Mike Scott

NEMOnews Media Group

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on in the United States, many individuals are experiencing fear and anxiety about the virus and its effect on them, their families, friends and communities.  

Public health actions, such as stay at home orders, social distancing and canceled events, have disrupted patterns in peoples’ daily lives, causing some to feel isolated and stressed

Even as restrictions are easing and people finding their “new normal,” the pandemic’s effects continue to impact people’s lives and mental health.  

To provide more insight into this widespread issue, we interviewed Chaka Batley, DNP, APRN-FPA, nurse practitioner (Psychiatric Mental Health – Lifespan; Primary Care – Pediatrics) with Preferred Family Healthcare.

According to their website, pfh.org, Preferred Family Healthcare is a community-based health care organization that offers a range of services in nearly 100 locations.  

In Missouri, they operate 70 locations, and also have locations the Quincy, Ill. area, and in Kansas and Oklahoma.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting people’s mental health?

The pandemic of COVID-19 is a collective trauma that has activated the stress response system. The stress response can present initially as a fight, flight or a freeze state, causing cognitive, behavioral and physical changes or difficulties. 

Common reactions to trauma or a stressful event such as COVID-19 include: confusion, nightmares, mood swings, irritability, easily startled, tremendous fatigue/exhaustion, muscle tension, changes in sleeping/eating patterns, vague complaints of pain, fear, worry, obsessive/compulsive behaviors, emotional numbness, and emotional shock. 

The strategic plan to minimize the effects of COVID-19 required physical distancing and isolation for an extended period of time. This distancing and isolation has increased the number of individuals who feel alone and who may potentially be isolated from their main support system. 

Parents/educators/school-aged children have been forced to adapt to teaching/learning in the home environment causing individuals to feel more overwhelmed, fueling the stress response. 

Biological parents/care-takers, foster-parents, DCFS case workers, and the children within DCFS custody who are now dealing with the effects of COVID-19 and the restrictions on visitations, court delays, etc. Everyone has been affected by COVID-19 in some way, shape or form and that is called a collective trauma.

Does it affect different age groups differently? How?

The uncertainty of COVID-19 caused many organizations and businesses to think outside of the box and envision how to continue business but differently. Many healthcare institutions began or continue to provide services via telehealth in increasingly large numbers. 

Many businesses partnered with each other to provide services or to help support those providing services. This rapid change in what services were provided and how they were provided affected people across all groups. 

We experienced higher engagement initially in the younger generations who are familiar with technology initially and overtime we are seeing more and more people getting comfortable with technology, taking advantage of telehealth services. 

Providers who were against telehealth pre-Covid-19 are expressing the benefits and opportunities telehealth provides to patients and providers. 

Some individuals have expressed their desire to create a “new normal” that allows them to continue telehealth even when the pandemic subsides. 

Telehealth capabilities have increased the number of individuals who are able to keep scheduled appointments. 

On the other hand, we have some individuals receiving substance use treatment express missing the accountability and the validation they receive for adherence to their plan within the office setting.

Does it affect different genders, races, or economic backgrounds differently? How?

We are seeing patterns in some populations based on the level of potential exposure. 

Some populations who may have increased risk include: grandparents caring for children, individuals in the criminal justice system, immigrant workers, elderly with chronic illnesses, individuals with disabilities, individuals living in nursing home or who may be experiencing homelessness, individuals with substance use, low-income families with limited resources, individuals of color and essential workers.

The risk exposure can be a variety of things, such as lack of resources to socially isolate or maintain the recommended hygiene necessary to protect and prevent transmission of COVID-19, which includes small or close living spaces in large groups. 

Healthcare services are not as easily accessible, which can have detrimental effects on those who need addiction medicine treatment/services. Recent reports indicated a 25 percent increase in overdoses, impacting rural areas more than urban areas as it relates to substance use during COVID-19.

The cumulative number of COVID-19 infections in rural counties also jumped 13 percent in the last week, which is at a faster rate than the rest of the nation.

What are some signs/symptoms of a mental health issue?

Common warning signs that may indicate the need to speak to a mental health professional include: feeling very sad or withdrawn, out of control risk-taking behaviors that cause harm to self or others; overwhelming fear for no reason that is accompanied with racing heart, physical discomfort, or trouble breathing; seeing, hearing, or believing things that are not real; excessive use of alcohol or other substances; drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality or sleeping patterns; extreme difficulty staying focused or completing daily tasks; intense worry or fear that prevent completion of daily activities and feelings of hopelessness or helplessness with thoughts or plans to harm self or others.

What can people do if they notice the signs/symptoms in others or themselves?

Don’t be afraid to reach out if you or someone you know needs help. Talk to a trusted individual – it is very important to have a support system especially during these times. It’s important to also continue communicating with family and friends even if it’s through video chat or text messages. 

If you notice any of these symptoms in others, it is important to ask questions, try to understand what they may be experiencing and how their experience is impacting their daily lives and involve a healthcare professional. 

There are services available in the community.

Help others cope in healthy ways. Healthy coping is very important for yourself and for you to encourage in others. Some healthy coping can be making sure to take care of your basic needs (sleep, eat, exercise); reach out to others even when physical distancing is required; keeping a daily routine as much as possible or creating a new routine to carry out during the pandemic; practicing positive self-talk and compassion; and focusing on what you can control right now.

Where can they go for help?

If you or someone you know is in a mental health crisis, it is important to stay with the person or find someone you trust to stay with you if you are the person experiencing the crisis. 

You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-Talk (8255)), text “HELLO” to 741741, use the Lifeline Chat service at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/, call 911, or your local Emergency Room. 

If the person is not in a crisis situation, it may be appropriate to contact a healthcare professional such as a primary care or behavioral health office to find out what resources are available in the local area. 

Mental health professionals are available at Preferred Family Healthcare and Clarity Healthcare for therapy, counseling, substance use treatment, life skills training/support, medication management and addiction medicine treatment, and we offer crisis services to patients. 

These services are available to all ages and all walks of life. We offer a sliding scale for individuals who need to receive services and limited resources.

Is there anything else people need to know?

Self-care is essential for everyone! In order to be a help to anyone else, you must first take care of yourself. 

Everyone responds to trauma differently and it is important to allow individuals time and space to process their emotions and thoughts regarding the collective trauma of COVID-19. 

It is important to recognize the signs and symptoms that may indicate you need help. And we all need to work towards eliminating the stigma pertaining to mental health by acknowledging it is okay to not be okay. 

It is okay to ask for help even if it is just for a few seconds, minutes or hours to have time for yourself. There should be no shame in self-care! 

We can support those around us by respecting the experience of others, even when it is different from our own and meeting our friends, family and colleagues where they may be in this difficult and uncertain time.