As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, the immediate focus has been on how to  maintain our physical health through distancing and hygiene. But the toll on mental health that has come with the arrival of the virus and the economic disruption is also an important public health threat, local therapists say.

Anxiety and stress are the two things to watch closely, said Elizabeth Irvin, executive director of the Women’s Initiative and co-chair of the Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition.

Along with the basic fear of being infected by the virus, “part of what is exacerbating that anxiety and stress [are] … things around job security, money, childcare and feelings of being disconnected and isolated,” Irvin said.

Cynthia Starnes, a licensed clinical social worker, added that depression also is on her list of concerns, especially in people who showed signs of it before the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Fear and uncertainty are leading people to feel powerless, followed by a feeling of hopelessness,” Starnes said. “Even though it might feel like we have no control over the situation, we have to remember there are things we can do, such as social distancing, frequent handwashing, and just learning new ways of interacting with one another.”

Starnes said people struggling with substance use are also susceptible to relapse and the complex of issues that come with it.

“Often when people feel they have no control, they turn to self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol, which only provides temporary relief and creates longer-term problems,” she said.

Irvin offered some concrete measures people can help to reduce stress their stress levels

  1. Get the facts about the virus but make sure to take media breaks.
  2. Reduce anxiety with healthy actions that make you feel safer, like good handwashing, social distancing and having a plan for if someone in your household gets sick.
  3. Keep a schedule, and make time to do activities that you enjoy, like journaling, exercise, creating art or being in nature.
  4. Notice worrisome thoughts and interrupt them by focusing on your five senses or talking to a loved one.
  5. Make time to unwind and remember that strong feelings will pass.
  6. Take care of your body. Practice deep breathing, stretching or meditation and maintain good sleep and eating habits.
  7. Stay connected by phone and virtual means and share how you are feeling with someone you trust.

Starnes made it clear that there is no age group more exposed to the elevated stress levels that have come with the crisis.

“Everyone needs to recognize that eventually, this is going to affect us mentally/emotionally all on some level,” Starnes said, “ … but people who are particularly vulnerable are the elderly, especially those in nursing homes. Check in on them, even if it is only a daily phone call.  Children are showing signs of stress because they know something is wrong, but don’t quite understand what it is. Don’t frighten them but let them know that we are all trying to stay healthy right now and the best way we can do that is by staying home.”

Among groups of people where the strain can be magnified are first responders, people who are hospitalized, disabled and those who already suffer from mental help issues, Starnes said.

“We need to remember to stay in touch with anyone who is dealing with issues of loss and grief at this time. Not just those affected by coronavirus, but the elderly neighbor who just lost her husband or the parents who have recently lost a child. It can be incredibly painful for someone to be isolated in their homes when they have been relying on their ‘busy-ness’ to keep them going,” Starnes said.

 Irvin added that financial strain is a primary stressor, which, as businesses shut down and revenue sources begin to dry up, can trigger strong reactions.

“If you’re particularly concerned about someone, reach out more often with them,” Irvin said. “… If you’re really worried, you should call Region Ten’s emergency services line or have them do so.”

Some people who may be having a crisis might have concerns about whether telehealth is possible under their insurance, Irvin said.

“We’re so grateful that the federal government is taking a lead on working to assure telehealth is covered by insurance,” she said. At this moment, “people will still need to check in with their individual providers and plans about what is covered. And there is a little bit of confusion about that right now.”

Irvin said the Women’s Initiative provides counseling through telehealth that doesn’t rely on insurance. As their offices are temporarily closed, they are providing care and telehealth by becoming a call-in clinic, said Amanda Korman, the Initiative’s communications manager.

Starnes is among providers who are offering services on a sliding scale to clients who can’t afford full fees.

“Most people can also access a few no-cost sessions through their company’s employee assistance programs, which is also available to family members who are on the policy,” she said. “This can help at least for those who just need to talk through their feelings and don’t require longer-term care.”

Although this is an overwhelming situation, Irvin and Starnes said that we have to remember that we are all in this together and there are ways for us to support each other from a distance.

“We should also make time to lift those stories up and honor the amazing work that’s being done and the small acts of kindness that we’re seeing happen every day,” Irvin said.

Additional resources

The Community Mental Health and Wellness Coalition has listed information about actions we can take to reduce stress during the pandemic. Here are the options they had listed as of the afternoon of March 19 

Crisis lines:

Local Provider Service Continuity Information:

  • Region Ten will continue individual therapy virtually but is not currently taking new intakes.  Emergency services are available on a 24/7 basis (see above)
  • On Our Own is providing calls to member from peer support specialists.
  • The Women’s Initiative encourages current clients to make a service plan with their therapist and will offer phone-in services.

Virtual Recovery Support Groups

Basic Needs

  • SupportCville is a website with resources for financial and practical support

Elliott Robinson has spent nearly 15 years in journalism and joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its news editor in August 2018 through 2021. He is a graduate of Christopher Newport University.