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Mental health in the time of COVID Experiencing grief, loss and isolation

As we enter the “darkest hours” of the winter, each of us copes with isolation, social distancing, anxiety, grief and loss from the effects of the pandemic. Many in this area experience SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, the absence of sunshine. The pandemic has layered new symptoms on mental health issues already present. Our society tends to stigmatize those with mental issues and provides limited funds for care of mental health. In this article, I will bring these issues forward.

The Centers for Disease Control, CDC, last June found that forty percent of American adults reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition including symptoms of mental illness or substance abuse related to the pandemic. Because of social distancing requirements, some mental health therapists have gone online, but even these resources are scarce. Luana Marques, clinical psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital predicts a “fourth wave” of the pandemic that will cause a spike in mental health problems disproportionately affecting marginalized communities.

We are as unprepared to cope with the mental health fallout as we were unprepared for the physical presence of the pandemic. In an article, “The Hidden Fourth Wave of the Pandemic” Farhad Manjoo quotes the chief medical officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness: “We are affected by fewer connections, more isolation and more uncertainty.” The Trump Administration was unprepared for the mental health consequences and the incoming Biden Administration as of this writing has not placed a mental health expert on the Pandemic Task Force.

“Coping with COVID, Grief and Loss.” a podcast from the Washington Dept. of Health captures coping mechanisms with the acronym H-E-A-L:

H is for “Honor the loss.” Recognize it. Name it. If your children ask questions, be honest. Tell them the truth. Doctors advise parents to listen to the concerns of their child and speak honestly to them. When the truth is withheld, children often fantasize a worse scenario. They can even become confused as to what is true and what is false.

E is for “Express emotion.” All emotions are valid. If you are feeling anxious, depressed, or sad, find someone to share your feelings. Others are probably having similar emotions and may need a listener. Our neighborhood zoom meeting starts with a “check-in” to allow the participants to express what is going on with them.

A is for “Acknowledge obstacles.” Denying or avoiding acknowledgement of loss can keep you from seeing a way forward. When someone asks, “How are you?” Do you respond, “I’m fine,” when you’re not? It’s not a time to be ashamed to admit that you are hurting and need someone to listen.

L is for “LIVE.” Engage in life instead of withdrawing. Wear a mask and go for a walk with another person. Join zoom meetings or church services; talk with friends. You cannot solve their problems but you can listen and offer friendship.

In my West Olympia neighborhood, we have created a monthly zoom check-in where neighbors share concerns and creative ways of moving through grief, loss and isolation. One neighbor has a chair in her airy carport with a heating pad. She keeps warm while waiting to chat with people walking by. A musician described his anger at being unable to create music with others but began to play for his own comfort. Others walked in the woods; embarked on new gardening projects, connected with nature. I signed up for zoom classes through the Senior Center and have moved my art table from the garage into my living room.

Looking farther away, we can find other models for handling the stresses of isolation. Tim Herrara in a New York Times article wrote about what we might learn from an astronaut, a researcher in Antarctica and from the eight folks who isolated themselves within a Biosphere for two years.

Christina Koch, a 41-year-old astronaut, spent 328 days on the International Space Station. Koch’s advice is, “Be comfortable with unpredictability. Know that something could go wrong in a planned schedule. You must rearrange and adapt. What you can control is how you react to the situation, whether you let yourself go down a bad mental path or not. Be creative in how you stay relevant in the lives of loved ones. Do things that feel like you are close.”

Christina “ran” a 13.1-mile half marathon on her space stationary bicycle while her friends were running the same time and distance on earth. She has more advice, “Set expectations in your mind to err on the side of being pleasantly surprised, rather than being disappointed.”

David Knoff lived with 24 people at the Davis Research outpost station in Antarctica. The temperature was a constant nineteen degrees Fahrenheit and with zero hours of daylight during winter weeks. One had to “change with the surroundings and train yourself to learn to make the best of a tough situation.” David said that he had to dig deep within himself for the motivation and resilience to return safely to his family. One evening a huddle of Emperor penguins waddled into the research stations and the researchers were treated to a beautiful and rare connection with the environment.

The eight researchers confined in the Arizona Biosphere experienced conflicts within the group. They found that the third quarter of their isolation was the most difficult. Yet knowing there was an end in sight allowed them to persevere.

Our “end in sight’’ is the community receiving a vaccine and developing immunity to COVID that will let us hug our family and friends. Following the model of H-E-A-L, we too will persevere.


Coping with COVID: Grief and Loss Podcast,
Kira Mauseth, PhD and Doug Dicharry, MD, WA Dept of Health
Washington Talks, call-in opportunity, 1-833-681-0211
Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255
Emergency: 911


Barbara Young is a member of the Southwest Olympia Neighborhood Association and has lived on the Westside for thirty years. As an RN, she lectured at the University of Washington, Tacoma, served as Nursing Director at St. Martin’s College, and Professor of Psychiatric Nursing at SPSCC. She has written several books including Travels to Maya: 14 Days in the Yucatan (2013), The Interconnectedness of Story, Community, and Health (2013), and The Tree is Medicine: infant Mortality at Cedar Bay (2016).

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