There is a low hanging cloud of uncertainty that has settled over the land. The stealth and often deadly Coronavirus, like a curtain of fog, has blocked out the sun for untold numbers of Americans, and others. It has increased anxiety levels among a whole new group of people and, at the same time, sharpened its aim at the most vulnerable, people already dealing with pressing mental health issues.
This microscopic agent has painted a landscape of almost unimaginable pain and suffering not only across America, but in nearly every nation on the planet. Death tolls change so rapidly, it serves almost no purpose providing specific numbers. Since landing in America, the Centers for Disease Control reports more than 350,000 cases have been reported and nearly 9,000 have died. Other agencies, however, project numbers that far exceed those of the CDC.
Crisis hotlines, including suicide hotlines, in Colorado and across the country have reported increased activity levels. Mental health agencies have also reported a spike in calls from people of all age groups. Callers, including those who’ve never dialed a crisis hotline, want to know why they’re suddenly wrestling with an anxiety they’ve never had before, as well as a fear that seems all consuming.
“This is a very stressful time in our history,” said Denver psychotherapist and counsellor, Christina Valastro. “Everybody is trying to figure out on the fly how to respond to this crisis.” News of the pandemic, officially declared by the World Health Organization on March 11th, has glued people to their televisions or computers because it seems to change from moment to moment often going from hopeful to hopeless. It has turned from smooth sailing to flying through unending and boneshaking emotional turbulence.
“The thing I find most prevalent is anxiety and grief,” said Valastro. “We’re living through unpredictable times and we don’t know how long we’ll be sheltered in place. We don’t know when we’ll get back to life before Covid-19,” she said. “It can exacerbate our existing anxiety.”
Breaking news on the virus---now almost hourly---both helps and hurts and not only for those calling hotlines for information on how to handle this national and international crisis. Those picking up the phone to provide answers and, oftentimes, comfort and reassurance, are also feeling increasingly burdened by the virus’ collective weight. No one is immune when loved ones are diagnosed or, worse, die from the virus. Adding to an already painful grief and uncertainty are unanswered questions about their own lives, paying bills, meeting the rent or mortgage, feeding their own families, relationships.
Mental health experts offer a few options to help from being overwhelmed by the flood of Covid-19 news. Unplug. Ration your time watching or listening to ‘breaking news’ on the virus. Pick up a book or put on earphones and listen to audio books or music. Visit the kitchen. Cooking can provide a wonderful escape. Take a walk. Sunshine can be amazingly therapeutic and healthful. Focus on what you can control. Practice good hygiene and social distancing. Monitor alcohol intake. Remember, they say, alcohol is a depressant. Take care of yourself. You can’t help others if you neglect yourself.
The list of imponderables grows each day especially with no end in sight. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a voice that has become louder and more reassuring through his daily news updates on his own state’s battle, has declared the virus a mental health crisis, as well. “The mental health impact of this pandemic is very real.” In New York alone, more than 6,000 mental health professionals have signed up to provide free online services in his state.
One unpredictable variable that has also crept into this dark and national lament is isolation, said Valastro. “It’s unprecedented that our physical safety is based on detaching ourselves from other people. Our tendency is to pull together,” she said. Instead, “we’re being told to do the opposite.” “We don’t know when we’ll get back to life before Covid-19.”
While Covid-19 has ravaged health care systems, most especially in large city hospitals where supplies of the most basic personal protective devices are at or near exhaustion, it is also manifesting itself in the number of calls that are coming in to suicide hotlines. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that “one in five COVID-19-related calls included “suicidal desire.”
The emotional toll from the pandemic may ripple well beyond today or the time when it will be behind us, said Valastro. A lot of young people are feeling the weight of what may lie ahead. Their economies, she said, “may look very different,” especially for those ready to enter the workforce and embark on their own lives and careers. “Those are very difficult things to manage and make sense of and that can lead to dampening a person’s sense of hope.”
There is no doubt that Covid-19 has created far more than just a physical health conundrum; no one, not even the brightest minds in science can offer a roadmap pinpointing its timeline or final destination. But we’re not helpless, said Valastro. “It’s really important to control what you can control.”
That, she said, means adhering to the most credible public health warnings. “Wearing facemasks,” she said is simple, basic protection. “We shouldn’t just flow through our days. Eat well, exercise, all of those things are basic needs. Our mental health also improves our immune system.”
“Use your internal and external resources,” she suggests. Something as simple as taking a walk can offer cost-free therapy. “It brings a sense of goodness and comfort.” And, said the Denver counsellor-psychotherapist, don’t let the barrage of breaking news overwhelm you. Keep “a sense of humor…remember that you have encountered tough times before…you can handle this.”