Mental Health During A Crisis

By Adam Calder

            On July 22nd, FUEL Story County hosted a virtual panel discussion focusing on the implications the COVID-19 pandemic is having on mental health, and what can be done to bolster mental health when it is fatigued.

            Jean Muhammad spoke first, mainly about the impacts of COVID-19 on youth and children.  Her experiences in her four years as the Student and Family Advocate at Ames high school give her a unique perspective on how young people are affected by and coping with this pandemic.  She also worked at Boy’s Town of Omaha for 5 years helping at-risk teens.

            Muhammad talked about the loss that many of her students have experienced at a time when they might not have the resources developed or available to help them cope.

            “A lot of our students have lost major milestones, those things that kind of provide closer, they just weren’t able to have” Muhammad said. “They lost a lot of their peer interaction, especially the more intimate and authentic type of peer communication that you get in person and that you can’t get over social media. They’ve lost that time and investment of their vision, and they’ve lost support and therapeutic relationships.”

            Muhammad spoke of many changes her students have endured since this pandemic began, especially in their homes.

            “Family life has completely been reorganized” Muhammad said.  “A lot of parents who work outside of the home are now home, families are sharing a lot more time and space, a lot of families have been under a lot of financial stress, or the impending sense of financial stress. A lot of young people are experiencing vicarious trauma because of what is happening in their communities. “

            A virus doesn’t cause the rest of the world’s problems to go away, and Muhammad noted that children are aware of and affected by what goes on in the world around them.

            “Our kids aren’t experiencing coronavirus in a bubble,” Muhammad said. “They’re also experience the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality in Portland. They understand what’s going on with our governor and asking us to go back to school when we are in the red-zone as a state. Kids are experiencing a lot right now. There security is being threatened and challenged. A lot of mental health providers are seeing teenagers with increased symptoms of anxiety and depression and other severe mental health issues.  Some students who have never had these problems are now starting to show some of those signs.”

            Toward the end of her presentation, Muhammad provided a list of tools and strategies to help people manage all of the new problems and disruptions in their lives.

            “I have some strategies for helping yourself or helping a young person to cope during a pandemic” Muhammad said. “Usually when I say a lot of these things to teenagers they roll their eyes at me, and they have to get pretty desperate before they’re willing to implement some of these things.  Maintaining a consistent daily schedule including limitations on digital media.  Getting regular, healthy sleep.  I really encourage everyone to put your phone away an hour before you go to bed.  Staying connected with others and connecting in new ways.  Maintaining healthy nutrition is obviously important.  Getting outside as much as possible and moving your body.”

            Muhammad also touched on the unique nature of how social media can impact mental health, and what can be done about it.

            “Identify patterns and triggers” Muhammad said.  “So if you’re on social media and you see a hundred messages that are coming at you that don’t agree with you political ideology or are a personal attack on your human dignity or identity, those things are going to build inside of you.  You get to choose who you allow in social media.  You don’t have to let people be your friends in social media who make you angry, who hurt you, who are just ignorant.  You don’t have to allow that! Be kind to yourself.  It’s ok to take a day off and to say you know, I think the best thing for me right now is rest.

            The next speaker, Christy Krause, spoke about her role as the Director of Behavioral Health at Mary Greeley Medical Center, and how it has been changed by COVID-19.

            “What we have learned is constantly changing” Krause said. “Methods of treatment, visiting hours, the equipment, and the supplies we use. So many things changing.  All the anxiety around the pandemic, the misinformation, we’re bombarded with information.  It’s a continuously changing situation which limits our experience and control.  That’s what makes life very difficult for all of us.”

            Krause said that while they do have COVID-19 patients, they feel there is some hope based on their data.

            “A month ago, we here at the hospital were experiencing decreased hospitalization, decreased number of people on ventilators, decreased deaths and that has changed one month later.  Now we are seeing a bit of an increase in hospitalizations.  It appears though that deaths and folks being put on ventilators is not going up proportionally to those numbers. That gives us some confidence and relief in seeing that information.”

            Krause also had some data to share about the nationwide impact of this pandemic on adults.

            “One third of American adults are reporting that the virus is seriously impacting their mental health,” Krause said. “That’s one in three. Thirty percent.  Sixty percent of folks reporting this thing has a negative impact on their life, manifesting itself through specifically trouble sleeping, trouble eating, and drinking alcohol.  We are seeing a specific uptake of folks presenting to the emergency department with exacerbating of perhaps a substance abuse problem that they haven’t had to face in years.  Folks with new onset of substance use issues.  Be very conscious of that as not an effective means of coping with this.”

            Krause said the emotional and mental impact of COVID-19 on the hospital staff was apparent in several ways.

            “Here at the hospital, this essential worker thing is very real” Krause said. “Very early on here at the hospital, our employees were really struggling.  There was a lot of fear, a lot of irrational thinking around this, I can’t do this, I won’t do this, a lot of emotional episodes.  Really expressing a lack of control, lack of information.”

            To alleviate some of those anxieties, the hospital took several steps to inform and support their staff.

            “Some of the things we did specifically here, we had some time to prepare” Krause said.  “Very early on we established a command center.  This was staffed by the right people in the organization.  This is a place where any employee can go to ask or pose or clarify a question or concern. Maybe those folks didn’t have the answer, but they were committed to finding the answer. Another thing we did was increased communication. We have daily COVID huddles.  That information is then pushed out to department huddles so that people have accurate and up to date information.  We’ve also increased a lot of one-on-one communication with the staff.  Connecting with them individually, how’s this going for you, how’s this going for your family, how can we help you, what resources can we point you to?  We also developed an internal mental health website for our staff.

            Krause concluded the discussion with warnings for all to precede with caution as we move on into the future with COVID-19.

            “Our education and teaching staff,” Krause said, “I’m talking about the public, private schools opening, the universities opening.  Whatever your opinion about this, their fear is real.  They’re going through the same thing that we went through at the hospital in mid-March.  Facing all of this.  I do know the public health arm of the health center is working closely with the schools and with the university, helping them with planning and recommendations from what we’ve learned.  Historically, pandemics have led to a stigmatization of affected people.  Folks really develop a mistrust of those who provide medical treatment, those who provide medical treatment and those in authority.  A lot of this inaccurate information out there contributes to that.”