Make good mental health a priority during uncertain times

Miscellany/Deirdre C. Mays: Sometimes simply learning how to change the way you look at an issue can help.

The coronavirus crisis has millions of people nationwide concerned about their physical health, but it’s important to remember that mental well-being can also be a casualty of the pandemic.

People are fearful for their health and that of loved ones. Anxiety and depression are on the rise as workers lose jobs and income, students struggle to adjust to virtual learning, and the elderly and medically-compromised are forced to live in near isolation from family and friends. Social distancing rules make everyone else feel far away from those they care about.

What makes it all worse? There’s no definitive end in sight.

Dorothy Whalen, a licensed independent social worker who runs Caritas Counseling based at St. Mary Church in Greenville, said people’s mental health suffers at a time like this because they feel a total loss of control over their lives.

“Whenever there is a traumatic event, our basic level of need for security and to survive is triggered,” Whalen said. “We are encountering a situation that is really unprecedented in our lifetimes, and we have lost control over life as we knew it. We’re hard-wired by God for survival, and it’s a basic human need not only to worry for our own survival but those we love.”

“Fear, anxiety and feeling helpless increases depression,” she continued. “People start to think in a very negative way and don’t see light at the end of the tunnel.”  

Patricia Tobin Senger, an associate professor of social work at St. Leo University in Florida, has 30 years of experience in counseling and said she is hearing from people who have never before experienced mental health problems. 

“People without any prior history of mental issues are suddenly experiencing melancholy and feeling grief because of so many losses that the virus has caused,” she said. 

Tobin Senger has done extensive work with grief and loss issues and said that the sadness many people are feeling occurs because they are going through a grieving process over things that the virus has taken away from them. There is the familiar grief of those who have lost loved ones or friends to the disease, but there is also a grief for accomplishments, dreams and opportunities that have been canceled or put on hold since the pandemic started.

“People have spent years working toward goals such as a graduation or a wedding and now that is taken away,” she said. “Significant life-change events across the age spectrum aren’t happening and that is causing a lot of people to feel a real sense of grief and loss.” 

Even the changes being forced by social distancing can cause problems for people who already struggle with mental health on a daily basis. The closing of a park or beach that is a favorite walking spot, or the loss of a weekly meeting for coffee with friends can have profound effects, for instance, on someone who deals with depression or severe anxiety. Often daily routines and social contacts help keep them going, Tobin Senger said. 

“If people are already dealing with medical or mental issues, with problems in marriages or in families, all of those personal struggles are going to be exacerbated by COVID-19,” she said.  

What is the answer? Some very simple steps can help people improve their own mental health during COVID-19.

Whalen said following a set routine while at home each day can help because structure is good for overall mental health. 

Technology can be a real blessing. Keeping in touch with family and friends by phone, on social media, or through video chats can keep vital social connections alive and offer a daily dose of love, humor and hope, she said.  

Those who need access to a counselor or support group can also look online. For example, Tobin Senger and her husband ran a 13-week Grief Share group prior to the crisis and now are offering support to participants through daily emails and other online resources. 

Sometimes simply learning how to change around the way you look at an issue can help. Tobin Senger suggested using affirmative language instead of negative when thinking or talking about the current situation. For instance, instead of saying things like “I have nothing to look forward to anymore,” try the phrase “I might not have much to look forward to right now, but I will in the future.” 

She also suggested that families find alternate ways to celebrate graduations, birthdays and other milestones so that the achievement is still recognized, even if it takes a different form.

Whalen said this is precisely the time when strong religious faith can also help mental health. Focusing on the Gospel message of hope and salvation, or turning to familiar prayers and favorite Scriptures can help people realize that the situation isn’t permanent.

“Remember that we are a people of hope,” she said. “This is going to end. God has us covered. We need to surrender to this and trust that all is going to be well in the end.”