Covid-19 is devastating. Full stop.
But with the pandemic have come some uplifting silver linings. Among them: a growing recognition that there’s no shame in struggling with mental health issues, now, or ever.
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“So many people are going through this together, and that makes people realize that having emotional responses and responses to things that are out of your control, to things that feel overwhelming, to things that make us feel helpless, that it’s really normal for those things to kind of creep in and cause some difficulties for us—whether it’s sleeping difficulties, concentration, focus, your energy level or anything else,” says Kristen Houser, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
Mental health, Houser explains, is fluid, and can be influenced by body chemistry as well as factors in the environment around us. In the time of this pandemic, it’s natural for anyone to develop feelings of anxiety, sadness, grief. “These are totally normal things that are part of the human experience, and it’s always okay to get help,” she says.
Particularly at a time when so many of us are caring for loved ones around the clock, Houser emphasizes that if we’re going to be good helpers to other people, we have to be in a good place ourselves. “Taking care of yourself is the first step to being able to take care of the other people around you.”
It’s okay to have negative feelings that are intrusive, and it’s crucial to take care of yourself. Call 855-284-2494 for help.
It’s with all of this in mind that the Commonwealth announced on April 1 the establishment of a free, confidential, 24/7 support and referral helpline. The language around it is intentional.
“We know with a ‘hotline’ or ‘crisis line,’ sometimes people wonder Is my question really that urgent? Or: If I call that number, am I taking up a phone line that somebody else who’s actually in a crisis might need when I just need a referral to a service?” Houser says. “We wanted to be really clear that this is for general support and for referral services and for anybody to call.”
In its first four days of operation, the line received 881 calls, with the biggest spike on Friday night, at 119 calls; in total, the line has received approximately 2,000 calls since its launch. Most calls are from people who want to talk about their feelings of depression and isolation.
Some simply want information. “People are looking for information about the Families First Act, or applying for unemployment to get through the crisis, or where to go for testing or to get assistance with housing needs.” (The line refers these folks to other resources from the state.)
While New York state made headlines for establishing a hotline staffed by 6,000-plus mental health volunteers, Pennsylvania was able to get this one up and running so quickly by partnering with Center for Community Resources (CCR), the same group that staffs the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
They’ve also been able to recruit mental health professionals who have found themselves otherwise unemployed during the pandemic, like school counselors; eight to 10 people staff each eight-hour shift. They’re prepared to help callers who don’t speak English, as well as those who are deaf and hard-of-hearing.
And while there are many credible and reliable national resources, Houser emphasizes that the Commonwealth wanted to be locally relevant.
“We wanted a Pennsylvania-specific line that would be able to connect people with resources in their local communities,” she says. Callers can talk about their fears and concerns, ask questions, get information and stay connected in the communities where they are. “It’s important that people know somebody’s there to simply listen, to give assistance, and to do a warm handoff or make other connections to other specific services that may be of help.”
Above all, Houser wants to drive home that it’s okay to have negative feelings that are intrusive, and it’s crucial to take care of yourself. “It’s okay to take care of yourself in ways that are self-soothing. As long as you’re practicing all of the health recommendations about wearing a homemade mask, it’s okay to go out for a walk to get some air, to get some sun, to check out or do things a little differently than what people may expect from you.”
In addition to taking advantage of the support and referral helpline, Houser encourages people to be open to tele-appointments with their healthcare providers, to make sure they refill prescriptions before they run out, to establish a list of go-to people you can talk to, and to keep important phone numbers at hand.
Start with theirs: It’s 855-284-2494.Photo courtesy Piqsels, via Creative Commons