Virus can inadvertently affect non-carriers


We aren’t supposed to live like this.

Human beings don’t just crave social interaction. We need it.

“We are social people,” said Ellen Kelley, a licensed clinical social worker who trains therapists and care managers at LifeSpring Health Systems. “10,000 years ago, when early man was around, we needed each other to stay alive. And so, that’s kind of built into our DNA.”

Now, however, as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, claiming lives and upheaving health care systems, the message from governments worldwide is clear: Stay away.

“They’re telling us to do the opposite of what the DNA says,” Kelley explained.

Therapists and social workers understand and support the need for social distancing and stay-at-home measures at this time. They are also wary, though, that the virus can inadvertently affect those who are not carriers.

“Just the fear of it, I never remember being that afraid of anything since I’ve been an adult,” said Kelley, who is older than 60, and subsequently falls in the higher risk population.

We live in a world of constant news notifications and unknowns that can eat away at sanity. But that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the power to fight back.

Regional mental health professionals are urging people to stay in touch with friends and family, control what they can in their lives and to seek professional help if they feel they need it.

“Something I stress to patients a lot is we all have mental health just like we have physical health,” said Kara Glendening, a licensed social worker who is also the clinical supervisor at Memorial Counseling Center in Jasper. “So, people don’t always think about consequences to our mental health, because maybe they don’t already carry a mental health diagnosis. But, it’s important to think about how social distancing and shelter could affect our mental health — for anybody, who may not have mental health issues otherwise.”

The positive effects that can come from a wide-sweeping wave of self-quarantining, isolating and socially distancing are well-documented. Those precautions aim to flatten the COVID-19 pandemic’s curve — to decrease the height of the peak and delay it — which would ultimately slow the spread of disease and reduce the burden on hospitals. This would save lives.

Still, those same safety measures can also take a toll on the minds of many otherwise healthy individuals. The distancing that has relegated many to homes across the nation could be traumatizing for some, and it could also re-traumatize those with past trauma related to illness or isolation. Those struggling with symptoms of depression and anxiety might feel an increase in their hopelessness or fear, too.

Even those who have not been diagnosed with a mental illness are not immune. Isolation can decrease sleep quality, increase substance abuse and shorten life spans. And, on top of that, undetected child abuse and domestic violence could spike in a distanced world.

“My thought is that domestic violence and child abuse, just arguments, in general, are all going to go up because we’re all cramped in a small space and we’re not used to being around each other this much,” said Shannon Knight, owner of Playful Healing & Counseling in Jasper, which is a child-centric facility.

She later added: “It’s a recipe for disaster in the home, really. If you’re not mindful about how you’re responding to your kids’ needs and your spouse or whatever. If you’re only reacting to what’s going on, it’s going to blow up.”

So, what can we do to steer clear of all this, or at least lessen the blow?

We can lean on things that became integral parts of life long before the first coronavirus patient was diagnosed in late 2019: Technology and other means of faraway communication.

Some methods the professionals interviewed for this story encouraged readers to stay in touch include letters, phone calls, video chats and online gathering avenues. These can be used to check in on loved ones and talk honestly about how we are feeling.

Some counseling sessions have moved online and to telehealth services, too, making it possible for anyone to speak to mental health professionals from their homes. Well, not anyone.

Those who don’t have the financial means to purchase computers or smartphones, or might not understand how to use the devices, or don’t have internet at home, they are all being disproportionately affected, Kelley said.

But they can still fight back, too. There is power in designing and maintaining a routine. Strength and purpose can be found in setting and accomplishing even the littlest of things. Stretching, exercise and stepping outside for fresh air can help ease the mind.

Discovering and tapping into personalized coping skills and self-care habits is encouraged, as is keeping a positive mindset in a fast-paced news cycle that can too often feel too negative.

“Our thoughts and our environment are powerful,” Glendening said.

Kelley also believes there is value in the fact that because the coronavirus is affecting people worldwide, it is a shared experience that everyone can connect with.

“If I can feel like we’re all in this together, if it’s a joint trauma, if it’s everyone together experiencing the same thing, that can be calming and supportive,” she said, “than if it was just me stuck in my house alone, feeling like nobody knew and nobody cared.”

When it comes to children, Knight said it is important to explain to them what is happening and why it is happening in terms that they can understand, without the use of grim concepts like death or dying. Little ones might act angry while they are cooped up, but that doesn’t always mean they’re mad. It could mean they are anxious or confused.

Knight has been explaining to her young patients that the virus isn’t a scary threat to them. She wants them to understand that it’s the people who are most at-risk that we’re trying to protect through the distancing precautions.

“We’re scared of people who are immunocompromised of getting the virus,” she said when asked how she explains the situation to children. “And we want to make sure our hospitals have enough resources to treat everyone who’s coming in. So, we want to stay home so we can slow it down.”

She continued: “In general terms, only talking about slowing this virus down so everybody can have what they need at the hospitals is probably the best way to go about it.”

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