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Pandemic and slowdown brings our emotional health into focus

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by Julie Estlick

   After a spring spent in home confinement, many Coloradans are breathing a sigh of relief as they emerge from the strict stay-at-home orders and feel the sunshine of summer on masked faces.  And yet, many others are left wondering why that anxious feeling in the pit of their stomach just won’t go away.

   Those of us with similar feelings are not alone. A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 45 percent of Americans say stress from the global pandemic has harmed their mental health, and calls and texts to national support lines have jumped significantly since this time last year. Coloradans are concerned about financial insecurity, anxiety over illness and death, and an uncertain future, according to a Colorado Health FoundatCall 970-221-5551 for helpion survey.

   Just as scientists describe a potential series of “peaks” of COVID-19 cases, experts across the country anticipate a steady increase in behavioral health needs in the next weeks and months, says Kristen Cochran-Ward, director of Connections mental health program for the Health District of Northern Larimer County.

   “We’ve never dealt with anything like this before in our lifetime, all of these stressors and disappointments coming at us at once,” Cochran-Ward says. “Feeling occasionally anxious or having a heightened sense of awareness is a normal response to an abnormal situation. But if it’s causing regular anxiety or fear, a sense of feeling overwhelmed, intense sadness, a sense of loss or isolation, more anger than you normally have, or disrupting your sleep or concentration—or if you just feel worse emotionally than usual, it’s important to know that help is available. Making that call may help you on your way to feeling better.”

   In Larimer County, a 24/7 COVID-19 emotional support line was established in response to the pandemic. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. it is staffed by specialists from the Health District’s Connections program, and SummitStone Health Partners’ staff cover it overnight. Trained staff listen to concerns, answer questions, and offer emotional support and resources.

Emotional fallout

   Now that we have more freedom to move around in our communities again and aren’t stuck looking at the same walls, shouldn’t our mental health improve? Well, our brains are a little more complex than that.

   “Our first focus as humans is on survival,” Cochran-Ward explains. “Once stay-at-home orders are lifted and we begin to feel a bit more physically safe, our minds turn to the financial and emotional impacts of the shutdowns on our family and community—that’s when people start to realize that the emotions can be tough to handle alone.”

   The emotional support line will continue throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks in part to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant that covers the cost of three additional full-time positions to help with the expected increase in call volume on the support line.

   “We all need to take care of our emotional wellbeing, so please don’t be afraid to call the support line and take advantage of these increased resources during these difficult times,” says Nick Christensen, a member of the Larimer County Behavioral Health Policy Council.

sad masked woman with grief quoteA new kind of grief

   “One issue not getting enough attention is the grief most of us are experiencing over the loss of our normal way of life,” Cochran-Ward notes. All the missed graduations, family gatherings, baby showers, weddings, and cancelled vacations are important life events that we depend on to get us through the tough times.

   These losses coupled with the fact that the virus has not left us—we are still asked to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart until there is a vaccine—can be frustrating and sad.

   Callers to the support line struggle with this new, unexpected reality, but there are options for getting the appropriate help. In addition to just being able to call and talk to a supportive person,  individuals who want to talk with other community members working through similar things may want to participate in pandemic-related support groups.

   “Groups help connect people with a support network, decrease their isolation, and provide tools on how to handle the stress and anxiety that COVID-19 caused or increased,” explains Jenna Raymond, a Connections behavioral health specialist who helps facilitate the groups.

Virtual get-togethers

   While we’re cut off from visiting many family and friends, virtual events where you chat or cook or make something at the same time have become a popular way to socialize and let off steam. If your get-togethers involve alcohol, remember to stick to moderate amounts (one drink per day for women, up to two drinks for men) and pay attention to your state of mind.

   “If you’re using substances to deal with emotions it can lead to problems,” Cochran-Ward says. “Bottom line is don’t use substances to cope—check in with yourself and make sure it’s not becoming a problem. If it is, call us now.”

   Also, people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction and those with pre-existing mental health issues may be experiencing additional stress. Help is available, so if you’re struggling, don’t wait to see if you get better—reach out right away, she advises.

   In addition to the support line and support groups, the Connections program and its Child, Adolescent, and Young Adult Connections (CAYAC) Team are also providing their regular services through mostly telehealth appointments, including assessments and connections to the mental health and substance use services most likely to meet individual’s and family’s needs, when needed.

   Given the unprecedented time we’re living through and all the unknowns that lie ahead, how do we find mental balance and stay positive?

   Focus on taking care of each other, Cochran-Ward suggests. Reach out to neighbors and friends and ask how they are doing. And don’t be afraid of the answer. “Remember that professional help is available to enhance coping skills or simply listen and offer support. No one needs to go through this alone.”Emotional support signs and options