Lifeways Behavioral Health in Ontario offers mental health assistance for residents who are struggling with impacts of the Covid pandemic. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

ONTARIO – A higher than average number of people are seeking mental health assistance as the Covid pandemic crawls into its fifth month but two local mental health professionals said there are tools individuals can use to cope with depression and anxiety.

 “We are seeing a rise in individuals experiencing that mental fatigue and that really kind of day-to-day uncertainty,” said Sarah Andrade, behavioral health director for Lifeways Behavioral Health.

Jeremy Stockett, a licensed clinical social worker for St. Luke’s Psychiatric Wellness Services in Boise, said fatigue and misgivings about the long arc of the epidemic is normal.

“You can view it through the same lens as a tragic loss - a lot like losing a family member. Everyone is going through the loss of the reality of what we are used to,” said Stockett.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed in June U.S. adults “reported considerably elevated adverse mental conditions associated with COVID-19.”

The CDC reported younger adults, ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers “experienced disproportionally worse mental health outcomes, increased substance abuse and elevated suicidal ideation.”

Stockett said individuals respond to the stress from the pandemic differently.

“The people who are suffering the most are those who resist acknowledging what they are actually feeling,” said Stockett.

Stockett said one first step for people to deal with stress and anxiety is to “focus on what they can actually control.”

“We can’t control the future or the government or whether other people in our community are masking or unmasking. All we can control is right now,” said Stockett.

Stockett said people should “spend their energy on what they can actually influence.”

Another step to reduce stress, he said, is “acknowledging our own thoughts and feelings.”

“Sort of notice what is showing up inside of you. A memory, an urge or a judgment. I think it is helpful if you can communicate them to a person,” said Stockett.

Stockett said stretching, exercise and breathing exercises help lower stress.

 “Another piece is to have people engage in what they are doing, noticing what is going on in the space where they are. People who get really anxious might be leaving the here and now,” said Stockett.

Structure is also important, said Stockett.

“Some kind of daily grind you can orient by,” said Stockett.

Stockett said he is worried that many are turning to alcohol or narcotics to deal with the stress of the pandemic.

“None of us have dealt with a pandemic in our lives,” he said.

Stockett said the mental health challenges produced by the pandemic because of isolation, unemployment and hopelessness also can impact suicide rates.

“The suicide risk is always high. Has it gone up? I’d say yes,” said Stockett.

Stockett said he also is concerned about the long-term mental health impact of the pandemic on children, especially as schools are closed.

“A lot of learning is social. A lot of skills that happen are not measured on a report card. A lot of those skills I worry about how they will translate into the new reality,” said Stockett.

Andrade said one step Lifeways uses to address mental health issues related to the pandemic is to boost individual resiliency.

“Resiliency is basically kind of a process of being able to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, stress and uncertainity,” said Andrade.

Andrade said the culture of southeastern Oregon typically promotes a philosophy of ingrained toughness where mental health isn’t always a top priority.

“We are a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps bunch of communities. The inclination is to kind of put your chin up and bear it. I think that sometimes works but isn’t necessarily always a long-term fix when you have a problem that is persistent,” said Andrade.

That’s why, said Andrade, a focus on resiliency is important.

“Fostering resilience is where we’ve been able to garner buy-in. Resiliency is kind of the idea where you can bounce back when you have a difficult experience or an opportunity for personal growth,” said Andrade.

Andrade said some people have more resiliency than others.

“But it is absolutely possible to cultivate more. It is just kind of how we think about adversity and heartache and hard times,” said Andrade.

Andrade said she believes a program dubbed RAIN – recognize, allow, investigate and nurture – is an effective template to handle stress and anxiety.

The ability to identify what is creating the stress is key, said Andrade.

“A great example is an individual who experiences a loss, a death of someone they are close to. Really resilient people, they can recognize ‘I am devastated to have this loss’ but also recognize or think about positive things they got out of that relationship with that individual,” said Andrade.

Andrade said trauma and depression often manifests itself in the body.

“What we see is stress held in the shoulder, jaw or headaches. But you can investigate and recognize that you are stressed,” said Andrade.

Andrade said the nurture piece of the RAIN technique is essential.

“Making sure you are honoring your need to get a full eight hours of sleep, or take a break between Zoom meetings,” said Andrade.

Andrade said American culture can be both a benefit and a detriment with mental health during a crisis such as the pandemic.

“Culturally we are very competitive and that has allowed us to do some incredible things, but it also nurtures us to ruminate on negative thoughts,” said Andrade.

Lifeways, said Andrade, offers a 24-hour crisis service for those struggling with mental health issues. Residents can also call Lifeways for an appointment and can be seen by a mental health provider usually within a week, said Andrade.

“The Malheur office is also able to accept walk-ins, but your best bet is to call and schedule an appointment,” said Andrade.

The Malheur County Health Department also monitors mental health issues, said director Sarah Poe.

“We absolutely screen for depression in several of our programs. We also have our peer recovery mentors in house,” said Poe.

Poe said the health department’s main goal with mental health is to connect residents with the right resource.

“The best thing would be for everyone to have a primary care provider. The best place to start for many health care needs is your primary care provider and they can do those (mental health) evaluations and assessments. If they do not have insurance, call us and let’s help you get insurance,” said Poe.

Poe said the pandemic is impacting the mental health of many in Malheur County.

“We have a sense that people are really struggling,” said Poe.

Dwight Holton, chief executive officer of Lines for Life based in Portland, said his organization is seeing “more calls on a number of our crisis lines” since the Covid pandemic began, especially among seniors.

“The senior line has really exploded. We don’t have a good reason to why. We think it may be generalized anxiety,” said Holton.

Lines for Life is a non-profit focused on preventing substance abuse and suicide and promoting general good mental health. It offers a 24-hour crisis line – 1-800-273-8255 - for those who seek assistance.

Holton said seniors are already in a high-risk category for suicide.

“Add into that they are a higher risk of mortality with Covid and their grandkids can’t come visit right now and you have all of these factors exasperating this anxiety,” said Holton.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-235-1003.

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