Social distancing. Ongoing news coverage. Economic disruption. Limited travel. Canceled or postponed events. An uncertain future. These are among many realities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but health experts say the public should not forget about their mental health and emotional well-being.
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Stephan J. Giordano, the director of Albany County Department of Mental Health, said the pandemic can affect people’s mental health. “They’re having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, and many people are not inclined to share their worries with other people because they think it’s weak and they should feel they’re strong,” he said. “An uncertain threat while having to change the daily routines of your life is a recipe for anxiety, worry and stress, even for those who are not predisposed to that.”
Giordano noted that a person’s mental health can affect their physical health too. “Sleeping, eating right and getting exercise are crucial to staying emotionally balanced,” he said.
He added that people feeling bored at home can stay productive like reading a book, learning a language, meditating, playing a musical instrument, limiting media coverage consumption of the pandemic and talking a walk to appreciate nature.
He brought up the county’s COVID-19 Support Line, at 518-269-6634, as another resource for people who may feel stressed and need someone to talk to. The hotline is available every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
However, Giordano acknowledged that essential workers’, including healthcare workers, mental and physical health need to also be addressed, especially since they cannot always work from home or slow down. “They need our help, our respect and our support as much as anyone, and they need to take care of themselves more than the rest of us,” he said.
Jay Hamer, the clinical director at Pinnacle Behavioral Health in Albany which offers therapy and psychiatric services, said he and his colleagues have transitioned to teletherapy — offering their services to clients online, like with video sessions.
“But, I’m starting to worry about my colleagues and other mental healthcare workers. Although we’re up to speed regarding technology, it’s much harder to do teletherapy because you may only see the person’s face on a screen,” he said. “A good therapist would need to see how the person is moving, sitting and breathing. It’s much more physically demanding sitting in a chair with your client, instead of staring at a screen.”
Hamer noted that people may not initially pay attention to their own mental health as they were more immediately worried about catching the virus or spreading it.
“People may be shy about sharing their honesty and struggles. Relying on social media while social distancing may cause them to think other people are handling the situation better,” he said. “There’s also a stigma where people believe they have to be strong and not show weakness. What I’ve done is share my struggles with my patients and they’re surprised to learn I’m like them. There’s power in struggling together.”
He offered some tips:
“I tell my patients about gratitude practice where while it’s easy to dwell on the negative, appreciate that you got a roof and a place to live in, you know when your next meal is and you know your loved ones are hopefully in good health,” he said. “Living in the present is almost always better than the past which are memories and the future which is uncertain. It’s good for people to feel OK in this moment and there’s something uplifting about that perspective.”
Hamer, however, said while everyone’s mental health can be affected, it can be exacerbated for those with diagnosed or complex mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, addiction and substance use disorders. “Anyone with anxiety or depression, for example, now have to socially distance which can be socially isolating and it may trigger them,” he said. “Even people who are germaphobic may be more afraid now.”
Dolores Cimini, the director of the University at Albany’s Center for Behavioral Health Promotion and Applied Research, agreed.
“This is a time-limited stressor that we’re all experiencing and it’s helpful to understand that people all around you understand it too,” Cimini said. She suggested seeking resources, like the county’s COVID-19 Support Line, and reputable sources, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization.
While older people and those with underlying health conditions are more vulnerable to the coronavirus, she brought up that young people like UAlbany students have also been affected, like how classes are now online and the class of 2020’s commencement has been postponed to an unknown date. International students, students facing financial hardships or have internships are being affected too.
“It’s reasonably stressful for many so it’s important to seek support from others even if you’re physically distant,” she said. “Having a structure, keeping busy and following a routine are important too and just know that we’re all in this together.”
Hamer brought up how 9/11 is a recent example of how the country became similarly traumatized. He said he was the director of counseling services at the College of Saint Rose then and “many people came in with anxiety and depression. Our basic sense of security got shattered and I think COVID-19 is shattering our illusion of invulnerability again.”
He continued, “We thought we were invulnerable as we thought the virus would only stay in China but it’s here now and we’re all re-examining our lives which is natural. People need to realize there’s more to just taking care of your body. Pay attention to your emotional and psychological needs. This will all pass and we’ll get through it.”
For more information, visit www.albanycounty.com/departments/mental-health.