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Mind Over Pandemic: How Mental Health Professionals Are Adapting Amid Crisis

While the medical field has spent the last month adapting to tackle the coronavirus, mental health workers have also had to find ways to help patients during an uncertain time.

As the coronavirus dominated national and local conversations throughout March and states around the country, including Indiana, began to see an increase in cases, it seemed like the world began to shift.

Suddenly, businesses were being ordered closed, people were being told to stay in their homes as much as possible and the whole country was feeling the effects of COVID-19.

With a health crisis like this one, there’s something else that’s sure to increase; Anxiety.

Many people are beginning to feel fearful and stressed over the increasing infection and death rates. Isolation can lead to increased depression. Even people who may have never struggled with these things before can begin to feel the effects of them.

Kurt Carlson is the President and CEO of the Bowen Center. He says the constant, unavoidable conversation around COVID-19 can cause people’s fears to worsen.

“It just wears on people,” Carlson said. “It makes somebody who’s already anxious and afraid and insecure, that much more worried about now their health, as well as everything else.”

In light of orders to stay at home and avoid close, prolonged contact with other people, counseling facilities have had to close their doors to in-person sessions. Which means, much like the rest of us, mental health professionals have had to adapt to continue to provide care.

Connie Kerrigan is the director of community outreach for Parkview Behavioral Health Institute. She says a big part of that adaptation has been in the form of federal waivers that have allowed them to seek alternative ways of providing care.

Kerrigan says it's important that places like Parkview Health are able to continue to provide services.

“You know, mental health is our firm belief, at Parkview Health, that it is just as important as physical health and making sure we’re attuned to that and helping people that are already established with us to stay as healthy as possible during this time,” she said.

Parkview is using telephonic counseling and video chat counseling, as well as using the app MyChart, to continue to provide care to patients.

Bowen Center already had telepsychiatry practices in place, as well as mobile services for patients.

When they began to anticipate the virus would lead to a shelter-in-place and stop patients from being able to seek care in person, Carlson says the Bowen Center wanted to make sure they would still be able to provide care while protecting staff and patients.

“So, we decided that telephonic was the best way because it was the most robust and, frankly, if everything else goes down, our phone system will probably be the last thing that goes down,” he said.

When they began letting patients know how they would be adapting, Carlson says he heard relief that they would be continuing services.

One of the tips many mental health professionals have given people during this time, is to maintain a routine. For people who were already seeking counseling services for anxiety, depression or another mental health service, the idea of that routine being disrupted can cause further worry or fear.

“And this is in the face of an awful lot of fear and anxiety within the community and our patients,” Carlson said. “So, it’s a relief to them that somebody’s still helping them.”

The Bowen Center is also still admitting new patients in order to help anyone who may be feeling increased fear or anxiety during the crisis.

Carlson said the telepsychiatry has also increased their show-up rates and that clients have been just as engaged in sessions as they would be in person.

At Mental Health America of Northeast Indiana, the focus is on education and advocacy. Executive director Lisa Smith says a lot of this can be done remotely.

“We’re offering things like support groups and our wellness recovery action plan course virtually through phone and computer access through Zoom.”

MHANI is also working to support parents and teachers virtually through a facebook group for parents and a website for teachers. Smith says the facebook group encourages parents to connect to make them feel less alone while dealing with the stress of having children home all day .

She says MHANI recognizes that people are dealing with a new level of stress -- whether it’s about unemployment, childcare or the uncertainty of the future -- and that their mental health may be affected for longer than they’d expect it to be.

“So, we want to encourage people to reach out for help if they need it,” Smith said.

But, as people who may have never struggled with their mental health before begin to, another question may arise; When should you seek care?

There are many suggestions for how to manage your self-care and anxiety without seeking professional help -- such as meditating, exercising, taking breaks from the news and reaching out to friends and family.

But how do you know when it’s time to ask for help from a professional?

Kerrigan says, even outside of times of global crisis, the threshold is typically when it becomes intrusive in your life and begins to halt your ability to function normally. Whether it’s because you’ve become consumed with worry or are feeling more blue than normal due to isolation.

“But any point that someone feels like ‘I really just need to talk to someone’ I think is what we would recommend that you call,” Kerrigan said.

Parkview Health has a help line at 800-284-8439 that anyone can call to do screenings over the phone and be connected to the right resources.

“The other key piece is you don’t have to suffer alone and making sure that people know they can reach out and connect,” Kerrigan said.

If you need help, you can reach help via the number above or through the websites for Parkview Health and Bowen Center.