Regional mental health is sure to take a massive hit during a disaster whether the disaster is manmade, natural or viral.
To help people through the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health organizations in the Tri-Counties are working overtime.
Jamie Banker, a professor of psychology at California Lutheran University, is training therapists and working as a volunteer with the California Mental Health Corps, a group of therapists, counselors and other professionals dedicated to helping Californians through the crisis.
Banker has seen a rise in people calling mental health hotlines. There are exceptionally high levels of anxiety, stress and worry as the crisis stretches on, as well as increased depression, loneliness and other negative symptoms and emotions. She said some people who already experienced mental health conditions are experiencing even more challenges now, while people who hadn’t previously dealt with issues are now presenting with mental health problems.
“Most people who are living through this pandemic are experiencing grief in some form or another,” Banker said.
The grief comes from the loss of celebrations and milestones, the missed opportunities to learn, grow and connect and the uncertainty of people not knowing if they can feed their families and pay rent.
“People lose a sense of security when they can’t do their same routine,” Banker said.
And while there isn’t an exact replica of the current situation therapists can refer back to, the field knows how humans respond to continued stress, uncertainty and trauma.
Banker herself helped survivors process what happened to them while she was a doctoral student at Virginia Tech during 2007, when the school was attacked by a shooter, and she supported the community in and around Thousand Oaks after the Borderline shooting in 2018.
Banker said one way to help people is to accept that they handle crises in different ways.
“We have to be a little less critical about how people are doing things and be a little more patient,” Banker said. “We have to keep in mind that people are trying to survive and that they’re doing the best they can.”
Another way people can help is through communication — which is especially important for businesses and organizations that find they’ve needed to drastically change how they provide goods and services.
Banker recommended reaching out and telling clients and customers how the business is handling the crisis, and what steps someone might need to take to safely interact with the business.
“It’ll be helpful for people to know what they’re getting into when they go to appointments or when they pick things up,” Banker said. “It creates a sense of safety when they can predict what they’ll be doing.”
At the same time, therapists and mental health services have also been impacted by the same restrictions that have hit the rest of the community.
Pam Zweifel, president of San Luis Obispo County’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that the group had to cancel its Beautiful Minds Rally and Walk.
The walk, which was originally scheduled for May 2, raises funds and awareness. Without the support the walk generates, the group was sent scrambling for additional funding.
Additionally, the programs the organization presents were impacted. A lot of therapy, both one-on-one and group, has shifted online, but Zweifel said telehealth is only partially satisfying.
“There’s nothing like being together in a group,” Zweifel said. “Being together, seeing the body language.”
And the longer the region remains affected, the more people are struggling. Zweifel said during the first couple of weeks, people seemed to be able to cope, but as shutdowns have been extended people have been having increasing trouble.
To help people feel more secure, Zweiful recommended showing how local guidelines are being followed. Keeping a physical distance of six or more feet and wearing masks are important, for other peoples’ mental and physical health.
“If someone is not wearing a mask, I’m wondering why,” Zweiful said. “It just seems like the thoughtful thing to do.”
Banker also recommended keeping in contact with friends and family.
“We still need to focus on how to stay emotionally connected with each other,” Banker said. “It’s really important to pay attention to how we’re feeling and how our loved ones are feeling.”
• Contact Amber Hair at [email protected]