By Alyssa Schnugg
Dealing with COVID-19 and preventing the spread means doing certain things to keep yourself healthy — washing hands, staying home and keeping a safe distance from others when you must leave the house.
However, while people take steps to avoid catching the virus, many are also dealing with anxiety and panic over their health, the health of their loved ones and their financial health.
It’s just as important to take care of your mental health during this pandemic, according to local mental health experts.
Sandy Rogers, director of Communicare in Oxford, said while her organization has not seen an increase in requests for services related to the anxiety and fear associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, she attributes that to shock and people not knowing how to reach out for help, since dealing with extreme anxiety might be new to some.
“We did our own in house needs assessment and over 70 percent of our own staff are dealing with fears and anxiety,” Rogers said. “This is very normal and we are here to help people normalize their feelings and learn appropriate coping skills to get through this time in our nation. We would like everyone to know that we are here and can help anyone within our community who is struggling.”
Psychiatrist Katherine Pannel, Medical Director of Right Track Medical Group in Oxford said her clinic has seen an increase in new patient appointments.
“I have also noticed more follow-up appointments being rescheduled to be seen sooner in order to speak with the physician about their anxiety and COVID-19,” she said.
Both Rogers and Pannel said they are seeing the same concerns from patients.
“People are very concerned about their loved one’s health as well as their own,” Rogers said. “People are also equally afraid of the toll this is already taking on our economy.”
With Oxford and Lafayette County citizens being told to stay at home when they can, many may start to feel isolated if they live alone. Parents are having to deal with bored children. Families who don’t live together are separated. Elderly parents are kept away from their children and grandchildren. Businesses are closed and adults are worrying about money as well as feeling unproductive.
However, Pannel said having to stay home doesn’t mean having to say inside. Getting outdoors and in the sun, or even in the rain, can provide some relief.
“You can go outdoors and run, bike, fly a kite, do yard work, as long as you do not do it in a group setting,” she said. “If the weather is bad or you are stuck indoors, use technology to your advantage. Facetime, Skype or Zoom friends and distant loved ones to talk to them.”
Rogers said making sure to eat healthy and to exercise can help with anxiety, as can reaching out to people if they’re feeling overwhelmed.
“Do not sit and hide from your depression or anxiety,” she said. “Reach out to us (Communicare) if you’re struggling.”
And it’s OK to walk away from the news once in a while.
“There’s a fine line between being prepared and informed and being overwhelmed with the news, allowing it to turn into panic,” Rogers said.
Pannel suggests people get updates in the morning and then turn off the radio, television, computers and news apps on phones – or watch or listen to something lighthearted for awhile.
“Following COVID-19 information 24/7 will only heighten anxiety,” she said.
With the elderly being at a higher risk to die from COVID-19, Pannel said family members should support and comfort their aging relatives but while practicing social distancing to keep them safe.
“You can do your part by staying away from the elderly as to not risk them getting the virus,” she said. “Call them, send cards and Facetime them to check on them. But reassure them that as long as they practice good social distancing, that their risk of contracting the virus is low.”
On the other end of the age spectrum, children are also dealing with dramatic changes in their lives with schools being closed, staying at home, being separated from family members who don’t live with them and changes to their daily schedules.
Rogers said a child’s age should be taken into consideration when explaining what’s going on.
Children should be given factual information but young children and especially sensitive children should not be bombarded with disturbing news that they can do nothing about,” she said. “When the adults are calm and matter-of-fact about situations children are more able to feel safe. We can acknowledge the problem without displaying excessive emotion or fear.”
With schools closed, parents have more control over what their children are exposed to in the way of information and there is little benefit to having children hear the daily death count, she said.
“Older children who are chafing at the sudden restrictions in their daily life might need to have more explanation as to why these measures are necessary but using scare tactics to control teenager behavior is notoriously ineffective,” Rogers added. “Make sure you are talking to your kids. Tell them it is OK. Give them real facts and encourage them to talk about their fears.”
People should be vigilant in watching out for their friends and loved ones who might be showing signs of anxiety or depression, Rogers said. The worst thing someone can do is shame someone for their feelings.
“People are shamed and told ‘they need to get over it,’ or ‘be grateful for what you have,’” she said. “While remaining grateful is a great thing, it does not cure anxiety and depression. “Friends and family need to reach out to their loved ones they feel are struggling. They need to normalize their feelings.”
Using social media and technology can help keep watch on loved ones suspected of having a difficult time.
“Ensure them that their feelings are normal,” Pannel said. “We are all struggling.”
Anyone dealing with anxiety and/or depression who feel they may need some help, Rogers and Pannel both recommend they reach out to a therapist, whether it’s Communicare, Right Track Medical Group or even their own family doctor.
Dr. David Coon, owner and physician at Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, is spending most of his days dealing with the physical side of COVID-19, testing and treating patients. However, stopping the spread of coronavirus is the fastest way to help alleviate the fear and anxiety. Once the numbers stop climbing, so can the fear.
“I, like most healthcare professionals, take very seriously the need to do everything possible to slow the spread of this thing right now, which means avoiding person to person contact as much as possible,” he said. “The longer we can stretch the spread, the better it will be from a healthcare resource standpoint, from doctors, nurses, and other health workers (some of whom will get ill), shortages of protective gear for healthcare workers, not enough available ICU and other hospital beds, medication shortages, et cetera.”