Mental Health Month right on time

Anxiety around COVID-19 creating new conversations, approaches to mental health

Mental Health Month has been observed the fifth month of every year since 1949. But the month of May has never looked quite like it does in 2020.

"A lot has changed, obviously, in the last couple of months," said Greg DiDomenico, president and chief executive officer of Community Memorial Foundation in Hinsdale. "The coronavirus has affected all of us in different ways. That's why self-care, particularly mental health, is so important."

Among those who are feeling the emotional toll of COVID-19 acutely are health-care professionals and first responders. The normal hospital cycle of diagnosing, treating and sending patients home has been altered dramatically for many, said Hinsdale's Dr. Chris Colbert, assistant program director of the emergency medicine residency program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"We don't have that luxury with COVID, and that has an emotional wear on physicians. It has an emotional wear on patients. It has an emotional wear on nurses as well," Colbert said.

The number of COVID-19 patients appears to be leveling off somewhat, he said, but doctors and nurses still have anxiety about contracting the virus themselves or bringing it home to family members. And the hospital environment they were accustomed to has changed.

"We are now working in a hospital where we have N95 masks on, we have face shields on, we have gowns on," he said. "That alone changes the culture of an emergency room."

The recent suicide of an emergency room doctor in New York has helped bring conversations about mental health in the medical community to the forefront, Colbert said.

"That is a positive aspect," he said. "There is a lot of silver lining to this COVID cloud. We are expanding the conversation. We are expanding the conversation on mental health of hospital faculty. We are expanding the conversation on physical wellness and mental wellness as well. We're expanding the conversation on patient wellness."

The husband and father of three said the most important thing people can do is to check in on one another.

"Just ask - ask how people are doing," he said. "There is not one person that doesn't have a loved one that is involved with medicine in some capacity."

Mental health resources

People also can check in on themselves, DiDomenico said, using a series of online screenings available through Mental Health America with the clever title "Take a checkup from the neck up."

The site (see sidebar) - offers mental health tests focused on depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction and a host of other subjects.

"It's just a screening for you to be able to gauge where you are in terms of mental health and wellness," DiDomenico said, adding that he took one of the screenings himself.

"It actually helped me to put into words what I was feeling," he shared. "It made me also reflect ... and it forced me to help myself understand more how I was feeling."

Many other online resources exist (see sidebar). The foundation has been working to offer grants to help partner agencies like The Community House, The Living Room and NAMI move from in-person services to digital delivery.

"That's what we supported in our urgent response fund was the ability to build their capacity so they can purchase telephones and other technology to be able to meet the need, to be able to pivot to a virtual platform," DiDomenico said.

The Living Room, a drop-in facility with locations in La Grange and Broadview, closed for a time in March but is back up and running with telehealth services.

"Their numbers are back and other mental health providers very much anticipate a real spike in numbers of people accepting their services because of the post-pandemic recovery," said Nanette Silva, the foundation's program director. "They are saying they are going to see - and are starting to see already - folks who haven't accessed mental health services from them in the past, including the medical health-care providers."

The foundation is working with NAMI DuPage and NAMI Metro to move the Mental Health First Aid Training online. The program will be needed even more in the months to come, Silva said.

People of all ages are experiencing stress and anxiety around everything from making a trip to the grocery store to helping kids with remote learning to mourning the loss of a graduation ceremony and celebration, the two said.

"Humans aren't wired for isolation," Silva said.

Which is why it's important for people to remember they are not alone, DiDomenico stressed.

"Reach out. You can text, you can call, and there's help."

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean