By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown & Uptown News
As people transition to a lifestyle of social distancing amid the global pandemic, many are facing new or renewed mental health issues. Editor Kendra Sitton spoke with Diana Concannon, PsyD, about mental health during this crisis and how people can take care of themselves.
Dr. Concannon, can you tell me about your expertise and your credentials?
I’m a licensed psychologist. I’m a forensic psychologist by practice and my area of expertise is in crisis mental health, as well as in risk assessment. I am also the associate provost at Alliant International University, where I am co-chairing, currently, our response to the pandemic. Previously, I have been involved in crisis response, working with Los Angeles County in several different capacities. I have trained first responders including health care workers, firefighters, law enforcement, as well as para-professionals, in helping others to cope with crises and their aftermath.
We’re definitely in a crisis right now. Have you seen or are you starting to see a lot of people struggling with their mental health?
Yes. I think that people are and it’s important to note that for most people, what we say in psychological first aid, is that they’re having a normal response to an abnormal event. And this is a particularly abnormal event in many, many ways. The severity of it, the duration of it, and the level of uncertainty that is attending to it, are unique nuances. It is completely normal for individuals to have emotions that extend in different directions that is to have heightened anxiety at times, to feel depressed at times. For most people, these emotional waves will resolve favorably and can be managed by doing things like engaging in self care, which includes making sure getting enough rest, getting, having proper nutrition, having good exercise habits and creating a new routine in light of some of the shelter in place. Connecting with friends and family, talking it through. For those that are struggling beyond what feels like they can cope with, that could also happen given, again, the duration. There are unique attributes to this event that could understandably overwhelm even the most strong individual’s resilience. That’s when reaching out to the mental health professionals who have been extraordinary in being able to create a tele-mental health network, so nimbly, so quickly. I have been in awe of our colleagues. Individuals can access this network in many different ways. If we’re individuals that have employee assistance programs, for example, or students who can access it through student assistance programs. There’s also county mental health facilities that can connect people with these networks. Of course, if people have private insurance, there’s also federally-qualified health centers [which] often have embedded behavioral health specialists that are available to engage in mental health or telephonic mental health. So there’s a wealth of resources, if one feels overwhelmed. And of course, for vulnerable populations, those with pre-existing mental health conditions, it’s particularly critical at this point in time to engage in good mental health hygiene to maintain the mental health routines that were pre-existing prior to this event, now more than ever. So whether that be medication, ongoing psychotherapy, or a combination of the two, that support system but any other social support systems are critically important during this time.
Speaking of other support systems, one thing that’s a little bit different about this crisis is in a time where it might be good to access those support systems, they’re not with us, necessarily. How do you recommend people go about building those connections and maintaining them during this time?
Yes, we have to be creative. The key is to take advantage of the technology that is available to us, whether it be by phone, to use FaceTime, use Zoom, use Skype, use whatever technology is available to us. Things like virtual happy hours, virtual conversations, virtual coffee shops, and create those spaces for connection. It’s really important to try and ritualize this. I know that that there are people that are creating networks, whether they be text networks where they check in at a certain time and they made this play date if you will for their children, to kind of create or replace some of the things that were common in their lives before and to try and recapture some of the benefits of that social time that they had within the virtual space. Whatever we can do to create those rituals, gives us a sense of control that is comforting to many people during this uncertain time. It is also very important to know that social distancing is not isolation. Those two things are very, very different. While it does take intentionality, to create social connection while we are social distancing, it’s critically important that we are intentional and we do make that effort for our own mental health and for those around us.
Are there any other things you recommend to people who are struggling during this time?
In addition to creating a schedule, creating new routines, it is also important to connect with what is meaningful and purposeful in one’s life, staying connected to the moment, recognizing that this will end. While it is a protracted event, it’ll go on for an uncertain amount of time longer, it will eventually end and we will be able to resume some of what we were doing before. It’s hard to know how the world will look. We may gain certain things out of this. But in the moment, it’s important to stay as focused and as centered in what gives us joy and purpose. Each day, to find something that can be life enhancing today, and stay connected to that, and be as productive in that as we can.
For people who are suicidal themselves or are the support system of someone suicidal, what do you recommend?
So if if one was to get word of another who is experiencing suicidal ideation or is talking about suicide, it is vitally important to connect them through the suicide hotline to call the suicide hotline on their behalf, to call 911 if there is concern this is an imminent situation, that is something that absolutely needs to be attended to and not ignored, taken very seriously and professional intervention is warranted. If the individual themselves is experiencing this, reaching out to a hotline, to a mental health professional, is vitally important. No one should bear the pain of experiencing those thoughts or feelings alone.
Is there anything else you wanted to touch on or add?
The only other thing that I would say is that one of the things that we see during this time and is the social contagion, which is very, very real. It’s a form of primitive empathy and we’ve seen it in the food hoarding, in the buying of firearms, and the buying of marijuana now. We see it during times of disaster, manmade disasters or natural disasters. It’s a phenomenon where what one feels is contagious and it’s a part of how we relate to each other. It’s part of how we form groups. We see it at sports events to good effect, we see it at concerts to good effect. We see it during disasters sometimes to challenging effect. When the anxiety and fear of others, it runs through groups and results in things like hoarding of food or paper towels or toilet paper. That’s a very real phenomenon. I think it is something that people need to be mindful of because we want to inoculate ourselves from the negative aspects of that. It’s a very automatic response.
The good news is, we then can control its effect on us. We can do so by being mindful and engaging in what’s called top down thinking, where we control our immediate emotional response if we find ourselves being influenced by those around us who may not be in the best space at the moment. If they’re feeling that fear and anxiety, recognizing that that will be a little contagious. We can pause and either remove ourselves from that situation, distract ourselves with something else. Turn off the TV for a little while, for example, if that’s the cause of what’s making us anxious, or move away from a group that is talking about, in a negative way, how events are going at the moment and just give ourselves a little bit of a break. Conversely, when we are in a positive place, that likewise has an influence. We have an opportunity to help others during this time and to leverage emotional contagion to make a positive difference for others. Oftentimes, we reach out when we are feeling badly. But we have to also remember that during those times when we’re feeling good, that’s also a great time to reach out because that positive feeling that we have is also contagious. And we can make a real difference in the community and in the wellbeing of others. It’s something that we have great power over and We don’t think about it as much except in extreme events usually. And yet, it influences us every day.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.