COVID-19 has negatively affected people’s emotional well-being after a series of unprecedented actions and behaviors to mitigate the spread of the disease. The pandemic's shutdowns, stay-at-home orders, and resulting economic downturn have had a noticeable impact on mental health.
As a licensed professional counselor (LPC), Kansas-based mom Kellie Strube has realized even she is not immune to the emotional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. With a son gearing up to begin school in the fall, Strube said she’s had anxiety navigating life’s new normal amid the global pandemic.
Serving as the clinical coordinator for the behavioral health intensive outpatient program at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission, Strube regularly leads out in group therapy and teaches healthy processing skills to clients. “I feel lucky that I’m a therapist because I have a lot of skills, but even I can see myself spiraling sometimes,” she said.
Strube is not alone. A nationwide survey assessing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the emotional well-being of U.S. adults reported 90 percent of its participants experienced emotional distress.
In Florida, a state especially hard-hit by a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, Luis Allen, psychiatrist and medical director of AdventHealth’s Center for Behavioral Health, is seeing an increase in anxiety disorders and substance abuse, particularly alcohol, in his work with the emergency departments. The trends are alarming, he said, but he’s not surprised.
“Everybody is looking intently at the graph of COVID cases, trying to see if the curve is going down, but even if there is a downturn of infections, mental health issues may still be growing in exponential ways for a significant portion of the population,” Allen said.
With study after study pointing toward a growing behavioral health crisis, health professionals are finding ways to help people cope and seek help when they need it.
Accepting What We Can’t Control
“Human beings like structure and predictability, and if those are removed, we become overwhelmed,” said Rennie Shuler-McKinney, clinical director of behavioral health for AdventHealth Shawnee Mission.
One of the most challenging aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the myriad changes to everyday life. Trying to maintain some sense of normalcy has become difficult for most.
Shuler-McKinney has taught her clients, and adopted for herself, the power of gratitude, highlighting the role it plays in helping build coping capacity and strengthening overall well-being.
Strube engages her clients with the concept of radical acceptance—the idea that if nothing can be done about something, there’s no sense in fighting it—to help them overcome the many changes outside their control. She also has them practice an exercise called thought replacement, where they reframe their belief or interpretation of an event.
“Thought replacement is about changing the way we look at a situation,” Strube said. “If I keep telling myself, ‘It’s not going to get better,’ it will only get worse. So how can I think about it differently?”
Staying Connected While Physically Distanced
Most everyone has experienced severed connections with family and close friends because of quarantine and physical distancing mandates brought on by the pandemic. Maintaining social connections is vital, said Shuler-McKinney, as the isolation has led to an uptick in suicides in her community. “We certainly don’t want to lose life from COVID, but we don’t want to see so much loneliness that we see deaths from suicide too,” she added.
Finding different ways to reach out and connect with loved ones, whether it’s picking up the phone, video calling, or even driving over and standing at the end of the driveway, is vital to maintaining that emotional connection amidst physical distance.
Taking Care of Your Body and Spirit
AdventHealth’s whole-person care delivery model addresses health in three facets: the physical, mental, and spiritual. Research has shown the three are interconnected, and behavioral health experts advise taking care of the body to boost mental and emotional well-being.
Eating a healthy diet, exercising, and maintaining a strong spiritual life are a few suggestions to help maintain positivity. Paying close attention to any physical warning signs that you may be emotionally struggling (such as sleeping patterns and eating habits) is also key to emotional well-being.
Allen said these warning signs are particularly important for health-care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic who are caring for others, often at the expense of their own health. “The challenging part is taking care of ourselves,” he said. “We have to recognize that no one is immune. We are just as vulnerable, and so we can’t let symptoms linger. We have to seek early intervention.”
Recognizing the importance of caring for the caregiver in the COVID-19 fight, the behavioral health team at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission fast-tracked some of the support resources they were developing for employees before the pandemic. Now, team members facing any issue, whether personal or professional, have access to immediate support, free of charge, right on campus.
Additionally, the AdventHealth Shawnee Mission team set up a serenity room complete with gratitude, prayer, drawing, and hydration stations, and a monthly call with an open line for any team member who wishes to dial in and learn about coping. These are in addition to the various support resources available to team members across AdventHealth’s system through employee benefits and other programs.
Seeking Help When You Need It
“The needs are great, but the lack of awareness is greater,” Allen said. “We need to improve awareness to be able to address the need.”
While the pandemic’s impact on mental and emotional health is starting to come to light, many may ignore the warning signs or avoid seeking help because of a lack of awareness and education.
In an immediate crisis, Shuler-McKinney advises going to the emergency department or calling 911 and getting to a physically safe environment. Speaking to a therapist, a more long-term approach, can enhance coping skills and life skills. “It teaches you techniques that can help improve your relationships and communication,” she said.
Allen added that online resources, such as those offered by the Mental Health Association of Central Florida, may be a good place to start. “Not everyone is going to be willing to talk to someone [right off the bat], but going to a website where you can take a self-assessment might be the spark you need.”
The important thing is to start, he said.