(NEWPORT, OR) As Lincoln County health officials continue to wrestle with COVID-19, a stealthy accomplice has found its way into the fight, wreaking a different kind of havoc that could have lasting effects. That accomplice is uncertainty.
The uncertainty over one’s health and the health of loved ones. The uncertainty found in high unemployment figures. The uncertainty inherent in planning for a school year during a pandemic. Those uncertainties are real and can be dangerous, according to Sheryl Fisher, deputy director of Lincoln Community Health Center’s Behavioral Health division.
“Uncertainty impacts our physical and mental health,” she explains. “It starts to wear you down over time and it impacts your resiliency. If we are not as resilient, then we are less likely to respond to stressors effectively.”
Fisher and her team have been closely monitoring how COVID-19 is taking a toll on the mental health of county residents, as well as at the state and national levels. As a licensed professional counselor, she is noticing trends that could be cause for concern if unchecked.
“This pandemic is touching people that never needed services before. People who would have never thought about therapy or medication are now finding themselves stressed, anxious or depressed and in need of service for things that cannot be ignored,” she explained.
The first four, full months of COVID-19 response may provide some insight. Outside of normal business hours, Behavioral Health utilizes a 24-hour crisis hotline to field emergency calls. During the months of April through July, the number of calls increased by 33 percent in 2020 as compared to the same months in 2019.
“Those calls are separate from the calls that our Crisis Team receives, and we are seeing an increase in their calls as well,” Fisher said. While reporting timelines making tracking suicide rates difficult, the counselor said there are concerns anecdotally about increases in suicides across Oregon.
While some may think that focusing on the physical dangers imposed by the virus is the top priority, the behavioral health professional is urging everyone to give equal attention to the mental health implications.
“We need to pay attention to this because it is difficult to predict what the long-term impact will be. We cannot talk about protecting people from COVID without also talking about the psychological impacts,” she added.
For those who have been unaffected by the virus and have not felt any impact on their mental well-being, it should still be a point of concern. Because of the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic, things like housing stability, food availability, and other social determinants to health are in jeopardy, which can also lead to a rise in mental illness. Fisher encouraged people to think about the impact that could have on communities and community services over the long haul.
It is not unusual that people would experience additional stressors during trying times. “Pandemics are stressful and everyone reacts differently, so a different level of stress or worry isn’t an abnormal thing,” Fisher said, noting that sometimes people just need a little more support or some coping techniques.
Lincoln County Call Center has a therapist on-call for just that purpose. Those feeling additional stress can speak with an expert who can walk people through stress management techniques or, if needed, recommend additional services. Anyone looking for help managing stress can call 541-265-0621 and ask to speak with a counselor.
Addressing stressors early on is a healthy step for anyone in 2020. Some of the recommendations for coping and managing stress come straight from the Centers for Disease Control. When feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty of COVID-19, they recommend:
Take breaks from social media-
- Eat healthy and exercise
- Do activities you enjoy either solo or via social distancing
- Get enough sleep
- Make sure you are connecting with others
- Find ways to connect with community or faith-based organizations
- Take breaks from news
- Practice breathing techniques or meditation
If you notice a change in your appetite, a change in sleep, an indifference to hygiene, more social isolation than necessary (for instance, refusing phone calls), if you find yourself drinking more or using prescription or social drugs more frequently, these might be warning signs that help is needed.
Without question, there is one warning sign that is greater than all else.
“Anytime you are thinking of hurting yourself or others, it is time to talk to somebody,” Fisher emphasized. “That may seem obvious, but when you are in the middle of it, it might not seem obvious. Sometimes people think they can manage those thoughts, but one day they wake up and can’t think them through the way they did the day before,” she explained.
In Lincoln County, help can be found with Lincoln Community Health Center’s Behavioral Health division by calling 541-265-4179. Therapy is currently being provided in English and in Spanish via telehealth and by phone. Those in crisis can also call the Lincoln County Crisis Hotline at 866-266-0288.