May is recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month, and area mental health practitioners are encouraging the public to reach out for support if it is needed, especially during uncertain times like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Nora Charles, a psychology professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, said the pandemic could worsen depression and anxiety and cause other mental health symptoms to develop. Some of those symptoms could include feelings of sadness, intense worry, stress and even trouble sleeping.
“It’s really important for people to be aware of their own and others’ mental health during this pandemic,” said Charles. “Additionally, the social isolation brought on by physical distancing can be challenging because many of us get a lot of stress relief and enjoyment out of social events and close contact with our loved ones. Now, we don’t have access to those things. The economic strain related to the closure of many businesses or loss of jobs is also likely to be a stressor for many people.”
Pat Calabrese, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Pine Grove Behavioral Health in Hattiesburg, said she’s seen an increase in Pine Belt residents reaching out for help since the pandemic started locally in March. Calabrese said one of the most notable trends she’s seeing is that entire families are experiencing mental issues.
“Often, there is one person in a family who is having problems, and the rest of the family can help them out,” she said. “But now, it’s the whole family that’s under stress. Sometimes it helps families to go through it together and support each other ... and, on the other hand, it’s sometimes more difficult because everyone is under stress with no one supporting each other.”
Calabrese said people should understand that everyone is feeling the pains caused by the pandemic, and she added that the best way to combat mental health problems is by developing a healthier mindset.
“The pandemic is very universal; everybody is going through it,” she said. “There isn’t anybody not going through it. It’s something that the entire society is affected by, and there isn’t anybody who has had the ability to get away from its effects. This is clearly a marathon. Having that mindset and knowing we are going to be in this for the long term is the way for handling the anxiety of this. People need to realize that being afraid of the virus is normal.”
Calabrese added that people should “pace themselves” and “not watch the news all day long.”
“The news is scaring everybody,” she said. “People need to pace themselves, not hoard food and not worry all day long about every breath we take. People need to have good healthy practices on a daily basis.”
Charles said those practices include keeping the mind occupied.
“I recommend that people try engaging in enjoyable activities that they can do at home, like hobbies or playing games with people in their household,” she said. “I also suggest that people try to stick to routines like getting up at the same time each day and having structured meal times. A lot of people find that physical exercise reduces stress, so going for a walk or run is another good option that also gets you out of the house and into some sunlight.”
Charles added that practices like meditation can be useful.
“Things like meditation may be helpful, and there are several online videos and free apps that people can use to practice meditation at home,” she said.
Calabrese said it’s important to utilize your support system in times of crisis.
“Don’t be alone; use your supports,” she said. “If you are afraid, then use your family, close friends, the person you have been isolating with ... and do it together. I think people, especially those who have anxiety, try to do things alone. Doing things alone never helps. In this age of having to isolate, sometimes you have to (talk things over) through a phone call, a text or even a Zoom call. Use those supports, and talk about what’s going on. Talk about what you’re afraid about, and that will help you feel better.”
It is also important to share your struggles with a medical professional, according to Charles and Calabrese.
Visit your family doctor for a referral, or, if you’re in a crisis situation, visit your closest emergency room. The Pine Grove help line is 1-888-574-4673, and the Southern Miss Psychology Clinic, which is accepting new patients on a wait list, can be reached at 601-266-4588.
For immediate assistance by phone, those in need can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a network of 161 crisis centers across the U.S., at any time by calling 1-800-273-8255.