Social distancing without social isolation

Local mental health professionals rely on Telehealth to provide support amid COVID-19

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

The COVID-19 crisis has touched every aspect of life. From income to routine, it seems everything is at the mercy of a virus that is hard to understand and even harder to predict. 

These circumstances are creating stress for many — especially those who live with mental illness. According to local counselor Eric Ridgeway with The Human Connection Counseling Services, it all comes down to uncertainty.

“The world as we know it has been turned upside down,” he said. “We are not able to predict what is going to happen next. Human brains do not like uncertainty.”

Uncertainty paired with a culture of social distancing can prove toxic, and Ridgeway said it is important to remember that these conditions may cause feelings of distress and sadness in anyone — not just those already struggling with their mental health.

“Thankfully, we can do social distancing without social isolation,” he said.

The Human Connection in Sandpoint. Courtesy Facebook.

Mental health professionals across the country are now utilizing telehealth — health services administered through internet or phone communications — to continue supporting people through the pandemic.

North Idaho Community Mental Health is utilizing telehealth practices to continue supporting clients, all while maintaining HIPAA compliance.

“This came into our world very quickly, and without a lot of preparation for us as therapists in an already overwhelmed mental health system in North Idaho,” said NICMH Clinical Director Jill Hicks. “We have some constraints and considerations in doing telehealth with our clients effectively, and with safety in mind.”

NICMH is also offering short-term crisis appointments for people who are not clients. Call 208-265-6798 to learn more.

Ridgeway said The Human Connection has also transitioned to telehealth counseling, and is taking new clients. He said his team is working hard to make sure veterans, first responders and health care professionals in particular can obtain counseling appointments without delay. He said that in times of stress such as during a pandemic, “those who have experienced trauma in their past can have their trauma be reactivated.” 

Reach The Human Connection at 208-265-5412 or [email protected]

NAMI Far North, the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is currently in the process of moving its support groups into an online format. Though members of the organization are checking in with individuals regularly, NAMI Far North Board Member Catherine Perusse said she hopes the organization can reach more people by moving support groups to video applications like Zoom. Those interested in joining a support group are asked to email [email protected]

In addition, the after-hours North Idaho Crisis Line can be reached at 208-946-5595 and the Sandpoint Community Resource Center is available at 208-920-1840.

Aside from seeking counseling, there are other ways to combat anxiety and feelings of hopelessness while getting through the COVID-19 pandemic. Hicks suggests keeping a daily routine and posting a physical copy of it somewhere in the house.

“Maintain self care, bathe, get dressed in daytime clothing,” she said. “Balance your day with high energy and low energy activities.”

If there are kids in the mix, help them get involved in the routine by letting them choose activities and meals. Hicks said it is important to talk about the virus with children in a way they can understand. For example, comparing this period of social distancing to something in nature that stays still for a while, like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. 

For teens, Hicks said, seek ways that they may stay in contact with peers, teachers and other adults who care for them. Mental health professionals agree that finding time for connection outside of the home via video chat or phone calls is important for everyone.

While there is no doubt that a worldwide pandemic is liable to exacerbate mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, Ridgeway said a sure-fire antidote can be finding a way to help others.

“One psychological response that we can choose to hardship is to think, ‘How can I switch this to be viewed as an opportunity instead of a difficulty?’” he said.

Ridgeway said he has been inspired by stories of people fostering a sense of community by donating their time and skills to support their neighbors through these strange times. By taking the time to contact people who may feel more isolated, North Idaho will come out of this pandemic stronger and more compassionate, he said.

“When it feels that our basic survival is at stake, that is when we can rise up to be our best selves,” Ridgeway added. “But we have to remember that those who are feeling extreme isolation can be at a greater risk, and that is where we can save lives: by spreading kindness and by reaching out to people.”

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