The coronavirus pandemic has everyone anxious. People worry about everything from catching the illness to how they look after weeks of going without a haircut.
Those worries, both large and small, can be amplified for a person struggling with a mental health issue. For that reason, in addition to continuing to provide in-person crisis intervention, local support systems are reaching out to clients and members electronically to offer comfort and care during these uncertain times.
When someone suffers from chronic depression or anxiety or a range of other mental health issues, a national crisis may elevate their feelings of anxiety or fear, said Pam Mullins, Coordinator of the 84 East Peer Recovery Center in Gloucester. To top it off, the community of support they may have developed to help cope with their problems could now be unavailable because of required social distancing measures.
“They need extra support,” said Mullins. “Someone to talk to in an environment that doesn’t stigmatize so they can be helped in recovery and know they’re not alone.”
For that reason, the Middle Peninsula-Northern Neck Community Services Board, of which 84 East is a part, is providing a range of services online, including meetings of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Connections Peer Support Group, which is facilitated by Mullins.
Mullins said she uses the Zoom platform to allow members of the support group to connect with each other and interact in real time, just as though they were all in person. Clients are required to be alone in a room in order to protect the privacy of the other participants as well as their own, and they must be 18 years of age or older. Just as they do in an in-person meeting, if too many people join the conversation, the group will break off and join another facilitator on a different connection.
There are two group sessions every Tuesday, said Mullins—one at 11 a.m. and the other at 5 p.m. Each one lasts around an hour to an hour and a half.
Mullins said a lot more people are looking for such support during these difficult times, and they’re looking for ways to express themselves, “to talk to somebody that can relate to what they’re going through.” She said she is also conducting NAMI Meet and Greets online to allow people with mental health issues to socialize in cyberspace.
As a PTSD sufferer who also has issues with depression and anxiety, Mullins said she has days when everything seems overwhelming and she becomes severely depressed. Communicating with others who are suffering and dealing with such issues can help bring to light solutions to problems that might not have occurred to her alone, she said.
“There are different ways to deal with the stressors of everyday life,” she said. “What helps one person might help someone else. Group sessions have helped bring me back and realize I’m not alone.”
To find out how to access a meeting, email Mullins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sandy Mottesheard of the Mid-Tidewater Affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said that people in support groups are talking about the anxiety they feel over the pandemic.
“They’re afraid to go anywhere,” she said. “It’s brought on depression in people who didn’t have it and has increased it in people who already suffered … People who were stable and doing fine are starting to be symptomatic again.”
In addition to the Connections Peer Support Group, NAMI will be providing a Family-to-Family class online for the loved ones of people who suffer from mental health issues.
The Family-to-Family Education Program will begin on May 18 and will be held at 6 p.m. on Mondays for eight weeks.
The class is designed for persons who care for or are related to individuals affected with bipolar disorder, major depression, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, panic disorder, obsessive/compulsive disorder, co-occurring brain disorders and addictive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder.
Mottesheard said that the online format for classes has proved to be beneficial.
“Everyone feels very alone now,” she said. “Seeing each other on the computer is very personal. It’s the next best thing to being there.”
There is no charge for the program, but registration is required by emailing email@example.com or calling 804-684-1480.
Community Services Board
Linda Hodges, Director of Clinical Services for the MPNN Community Services Board, said the CSB’s counseling center continues to offer in-person services to clients with critical mental health issues, including those who receive their medication by injection and those in psychiatric crisis. In addition, the PACT team (Program of Assertive Community Treatment), which offers in-home services to people who need them, continues to visit homes to treat the most seriously mentally ill clients.
“There’s not a lot of talk about the people on the front lines of mental health,” said Hodges, “but they have been out there.”
There are measures in place to protect workers to the extent possible, she said, but when the COVID-19 crisis first began, the counseling center had almost no personal protective equipment. They happened to find one device in the Warsaw office, she said, and they had some cloth masks, but they couldn’t find a source for either surgical or N95 masks, and front-line mental health teams were making do with basic techniques such as frequent hand-washing to protect themselves.
Alex Schick, administrative assistant for the CSB’s PACT team, searched for PPE for the team and saw a video on Facebook about 15-year-old David Hudson-Rubenstein in Virginia Beach who was making face shields with his 3-D printer. He is the son of a Virginia Beach osteopath Dr. Charlene Hudson.
Schick called the doctor’s office and found that the masks, which protect health care workers from large droplets that might be emitted, were for anyone who couldn’t find protective gear. She told them the center needed six to 12 masks, “and they got to work.” Schick picked the masks up a couple of days later. Since then, the state has increased supplies to health facilities throughout the state.
Hodges said that people’s coping skills are being taxed because of the COVID-19 crisis, and she expects to see more of it. Counselors don’t normally hear immediately from people when there is a crisis, she said, but they’re starting to see them now.
The same-day access that the counseling center provides has now been transformed into a virtual program, she said, and routine procedures such as taking temperature and blood pressure are being limited to just those people who haven’t been seen at the center before but who visit while in a crisis situation.
Outpatient services are being provided on a virtual basis, said Hodges, including case management, substance abuse, therapy, anger management, and other issues. For some people, that means a face-to-face visit via Zoom, but some can only call in because of limited Wi-Fi access, devices that aren’t compatible with the Zoom platform, or lack enough minutes on their phone. And the center discourages use of public Wi-Fi for privacy reasons.
“It’s not the same as in-person,” she said. “Part of the diagnosis is seeing the person personally. But if they really need services, we do the best we can at this point.”
Hodges said she thinks about all the people who are “going through so much right now” and she hopes they can get the support they need.
“We’re committed to this,” she said, “and we’re doing what needs to be done to keep people stable.”