Mental health professionals are concerned about the effects the ongoing shelter-in-place orders are having on people young and old.
David Love, founder and executive director of Valley Community Counseling Services, said he has seen families experiencing anxiety and increased pressure as they deal with changes in their day-to-day routines because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re in a lot of distress now,” he said. “This isn’t the normal stress of money and living and going to school and boyfriends and all this. This is an unknown threat that is unique to what almost anybody has experienced in our lifetime, and nobody is giving us answers or solutions on the near future.
“I can’t think of anything that is more anxiety-provoking and distressful, which then means for us, as individuals, we have a need to even more so take care of ourselves and our family.”
Families at risk
Valley Community Counseling Services is a private, nonprofit counseling agency that works with San Joaquin County school districts, including Tracy Unified and Jefferson.
While schools are closed because of the pandemic, the agency has about 10 therapists in the Tracy area who are reaching out to the children and families they work with regularly. They connect with about seven families a day for online therapy.
Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have also created some new problems as families deal with anxiety and fear of the unknown.
”Nobody has lived a life in our part of the woods where people find they are locked down with their family day in and day out. It’s a pretty big transition for everybody, added to the fact of the anxiety of we’ve got a disease out there that’s pretty scary,” Love said. “The support systems for the family and parents are lessened. Young people are used to going to school, being with parents and also then having the chance to be with students. A lot of their support comes from teachers and those kind of things — you lose all that emotional and personal support in an area of high anxiety and concern.”
Stress can show up in our bodies, emotions and behavior in many different ways. It’s important to know that these changes aren’t “just in your head.”
Some of the changes happening as a result of COVID-19 can be disruptive and even downright scary for kids.
Love said he knew of three students who had killed themselves in San Joaquin County in the past three weeks, and two more in Oakdale. He said isolation can worsen anxiety as well as depression, which can put children and teenagers at risk.
“And so we’re concerned,” he said. “It is expected that depression goes up with isolation, that anxiety goes up with the unknowns.”
Therapists are also seeing problems cropping up in adolescents.
“They’re sneaking out at night, they’re doing other things,” Love said. “There is a lot of conflict within the family. Stressors that were already there, and then we add money as a stressor, because there are how many people out of work — it’s huge.”
Establishing a daily routine can help when so many things are uncertain. Love suggested getting up at a regular time and having breakfast as a family instead of sleeping in until noon or staying in pajamas all day every day.
“The families that are doing best have a structure,” he said. “If we’re all going to be there, could we cook a morning meal together? Sit and talk a bit — how are we doing today, how are we feeling today, are we all doing OK today?”
He also advised limiting time on electronic devices to reduce stress.
“We can’t be six hours a day all glued to our phones and iPads. It just really starts decreasing our resilience, our ability to keep our lives feeling it has some direction, some comfort level. We have to turn off the news periodically. We have to walk away from this,” Love said. “The family has to support each other. The family has to have some structure. We have to have a little expectation of where life is. We’ve got to not be feeling like everything is out of control all of the time.”
Both adults and children might be sad about the state of the world or frustrated that they can’t go out. For some, those feelings can lead to bigger problems.
“Depression is normal when things are really hard, but being overwhelmed by depression puts people at higher risk,” Love said. “Alcohol use, drug use, suicide, anger, aggression, more fights — those are the things we are trying to make sure we get addressed before we reach that level where we are no longer able to keep our lives in a comfortable, functioning manner.”
There are certain warning signs that parents should notice in their children: being very angry all the time, isolating themselves and refusing to leave their room, saying things like “Is it worth it anymore?” Sometimes teens who are in crisis give away things that are important to them and talk about a plan to hurt themselves.
Coping with stress will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.
The earlier parents can recognize and intervene to get help for a distressed child, the better. The goal is to help them feel more comfortable and understand that they have support and that things will eventually improve.
“We want to protect kids,” Love said. “If they start acting in ways that for you are concerning, meaning different from how they are — they don’t seem like themselves, I’ve never seen them like this, they are talking about things that make me a little scared or uncomfortable — parents have to trust in that because it’s a sign things aren’t going well, and we’re at a level of that now.”
Kids might also have reasons to be concerned about their parents. The various aspects of the pandemic, including job changes and economic pressures, are likely to increase adults’ anxiety levels.
Parents who start drinking excessively or using drugs, who are angry all the time, or who feel everything is pointless might need to seek help.
“Feeling a little confused, feeling a little angry, feeling a little sad, feeling a little stressed is normal right now,” Love said. “Where we get concerned is where you feel like you’re out of control, you feel like you can’t do this anymore, you feel like there is no hope, Then, from a mental health perspective, I get concerned.
“You’ve got to have hope. Hope is a big word here, and we’re in a tough time now because we don’t known when we’ll see things get better, but we know that it will get better, we don’t when. We have to understand it’s not hopeless.”
If students or parents at local schools have a concern and want to talk about it, they can call Valley Community Counseling Service’s Tracy clinic Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., at 835-8583.
Veterans at risk
The pandemic has also stirred strong feelings in veterans.
The Tracy-based veterans service organization Fix’d Inc. has seen a surge in veterans asking for help over the past month.
Jennifer Vollbrecht, vice president of Fix’d, said the organization has had a 50% increase in clients through referrals and a crisis line since the start of the stay-at-home orders for San Joaquin County.
“A reason to reach out is isolation or anxiety — I’m having a flare-up of symptoms and I want to talk to somebody — and that’s when our clients reach out to us,” she said. “We have counselors. They are case managers and they are peer counselors, but they are specially certified as life coaches or even family therapists.”
Many of Fix’d’s clients have post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have anger management issues, substance abuse issues, traumatic brain injuries and what’s called problematic thinking — thoughts of hurting themselves or others.
“One of the biggest things we see with veterans in general is isolation as a practice,” she said. “We see patterns of isolation.”
Veterans who are healthy and want to connect with other veterans can contact Fix’d. Family members of veterans who think their relative may be in distress can call too.
“We get family member referrals all the time,” Vollbrecht said. “As soon as the family member calls, we’ll dispatch a team immediately. We’ll get online and try to make contact with the veteran. We have shown up on the doorstep, but usually we can get in touch using social media or other digital media. We’re doing a lot of phone call check-ins (and using) FaceTime and Zoom.”
People can contact Fix’d at 207-9284 or www.fixdinc.org.
Keeping seniors connected
Seniors living at home alone under quarantine or self-isolation can now call a special hotline, the Friendship Line, if they need help or just need to hear a friendly voice.
The California Department of Aging has expanded the Friendship Line, a project of the Institute on Aging in San Francisco, to serve older adults and their caregivers statewide.
Trained volunteers who answer the phone offer emotional support, well-being checks, grief support through assistance and reassurance, active suicide intervention, and information and referrals to other resources.
The goal is give a human connection to some seniors who might be lacking it during the stay-at-home order.
Friendship Line volunteers can be reached at 888-670-1360.
Rep. Josh Harder has called for federal help getting the Central Valley some of the $425 million that Congress gave to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to address mental health challenges growing out of the coronavirus pandemic.
The money is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, but Harder said funding hasn’t reached the Central Valley yet.
In a letter to Elinore McCance-Katz, administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Harder wrote, “During a time of mandatory quarantines and the increased levels of anxiety, fear, and isolation, Americans must have clear and unencumbered access to mental health sources. Many communities across the country, including those in my District, are experiencing the somber mental health effects of this pandemic: Central Valley suicide hotlines are surging with reports of attempted suicides; while overall crime is declining, domestic violence is growing due to more time spent with aggressors; social distancing is causing setbacks for some veterans coping with depression or Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); and seniors who are alone or young students who were on track to graduate and whose dreams have been crushed, this pandemic is igniting fear, anxiety, and depression.”
At the Tuesday meeting of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, ongoing mental health services under the pandemic were discussed.
Tony Vartan, director of the Department of Behavioral Health Services, said his department has been providing remote telephone and telehealth services and mental health evaluations, keeping clinics open, and providing mental health assessments and services in homeless shelters and encampments.
The department also has a 24-hour adult crisis line at 468-8686 and a dedicated COVID phone line for youths to discuss their daily struggles at 468-3685.
Vartan said the department is working toward starting remote telehealth support groups for youths and caregivers.