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Charlottesville mental health services adapting to pandemic

For those dealing with mental health issues, isolation can exacerbate problems.

But even as roughly half the world keeps apart to slow the spread of COVID-19, isolation can also give a sense of camaraderie.

“There is this weird, ironic connectedness in being able to relate to other people,” said mental health advocate Myra Anderson.

The unknowns and ever-changing situation of the pandemic, which is caused by the novel coronavirus, is adding anxiety, stress and depression to the general public. And for those who have already dealt with those stressors every day, new rules and regimens can make it hard to keep up with their health.

“It’s like having your world turned upside down,” Anderson said. “You already deal with anxiety, you already deal with depression, you already deal with feeling alone mentally, and then to have the physical part on top of that it feels even harder.”

“It’s felt like being in the dark and not having sunlight. And then on top of that you don’t know when there will be light again.”

Mental health providers have adjusted and many area therapists are now using telemedicine to connect with clients.

The Region Ten Community Services Board is maintaining outpatient and crisis services as it transitions most programs to telemedicine. The Women’s Initiative, which provides services to people who can’t otherwise afford or access care, also has moved online.

Elizabeth Irvin, executive director of The Women’s Initiative, said that clients have taken the change in stride.

“While it has been a challenge in terms of technology and protocols and everything, I would say it’s also been a reminder of adaptability and resilience in our community because both therapists and clients are making that work,” she said. “Our clients have surprised us by how unfazed they’ve been.”

Irvin said that the switch to telemedicine could provide a long-term benefit in access to services in rural areas.

“This will increase everyone’s capacity to break down that transportation barrier,” she said.

Interactions with support networks also has moved online, Anderson said. She talks to people on the phone, by text or uses video chat. She recently had a virtual tea date with a friend.

Irvin, Anderson and J. Nile Wagley, a local clinical psychologist, offered several coping mechanisms for both people who were already dealing with mental health issues and those who now are addressing the new stress of the pandemic.

For people facing mental health issues for the first time, Wagley recommended speaking with a therapist or taking time to discuss stress or worries with a family member in a safe environment.

“We need to have a conversation. We need to talk about how scary this is,” he said. “We need to acknowledge those fears at least in the moment so we can cope with it.”

For those already dealing with mental health issues, Irvin, Anderson and Wagley emphasized the importance of creating a schedule and routine.

“We as a society have really had to think about how we live and live differently,” Wagley said.

Anderson has joined online chat groups, listened to podcasts and said she makes sure to get up and get dressed each day.

“I’ve just been coping the best way I can because to me it’s been not only hard but something that was unexpected,” she said. “It’s kind of robbed me of the certainty of anything.”

Wagley said parents with children should create a flexible schedule. He said parents can come up with tasks to complete the next day and schedule family time or other activities.

“This does add a little bit of control, a sense of stability,” he said.

Advocates also emphasized finding a balance between getting the facts about the virus and taking media breaks so the fluid situation doesn’t become overwhelming.

Irvin recommended understanding the global picture is out of any one person’s control and focusing on individual ways to control your own life. People can focus on their physical health and follow guidelines on washing hands and cleaning, she said.

“If you know that you’re doing all that you can to protect yourself, that does reduce your anxiety,” she said.

Physical health can also boost your mental health. Irvin recommended eating well, exercising and sleeping well. Wagley proposed learning a new skill, trying yoga and not trying to do too many things at once.

For Anderson, morning walks have helped.

“It helps you to get out of the house,” she said. “Even if you have to walk alone it’s, very, very helpful first thing in the morning to get out in the light and be moving.”

Irvin and Anderson said staying connected to friends and family is important; Irvin said that social distancing should be rebranded as physical distancing while maintaining connection.

Anderson made a plea for people to find ways to connect with those who might not have internet access or have limited phone access and who might feel cut off from others.

Wagley has an optimistic hope for the future.

“My prediction is that a lot of folks are going to figure out how to do this and do it well and get through it just fine,” he said.

But, Anderson said, making it through a pandemic will likely be a long road for many people

“I think that the effect can be such that you have a person who has been relatively stable in every way and then all of the sudden based on what we’re dealing with now can become unstable,” she said. “I used to say one day at a time, but now I say one hour at a time. … It’s hard. It’s so hard.”


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