From Chenango Mental Hygiene Services: Not So Normal Mental Health Awareness Month
Published: May 12th, 2020

CHENANGO – Every year we recognize May as “Mental Health Awareness Month” in Chenango County and every year it’s a good idea to consider how important good mental health is in our overall health and wellbeing. Except it’s May 2020. And things are not normal. Nothing feels normal.

Recognizing the importance of mental health during a global pandemic requires us to step back and realign our thinking and behavior. We have never experienced this before and it happened so very quickly. Although we were hearing about COVID-19 globally we were all busy with our own lives including work, school, friends and family. We continued to carry on as if it would never really touch us.

Which was actually normal. It’s difficult for most human beings to make change rapidly. We tend to want to ignore, deny or dismiss anything that might interrupt our normal routines. That’s why federal, state and local public health directives were issued to protect us. We needed a strong wakeup call about the seriousness of this virus. Cancelling large gatherings and directing us to wash our hands, exercise social distancing and stay home finally got our attention.

That said, there are mental and emotional health considerations during this pandemic. Anxiety and depression are by far the most common. Anxiety can be fueled by fear but it has some very specific mental, emotional and physical symptoms including shortness of breath, accelerated heart rate, pressure in the chest, racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating, irrational thinking and changes in behavior. Depression often goes hand and hand with anxiety but tends to have markers of hopelessness, lack of energy and sadness. What’s important to note, is both anxiety and depression are often normal responses to abnormal and threatening events around us.

And to make things even trickier, many of the classic symptoms of anxiety and depression are similar to the symptoms of COVID-19. Minus the fever.

So let’s unpack what many of us are going through now and will likely be dealing with for some time. Let’s face it, we’re all feeling loss. Whether you know it or not, you’re grieving those losses. We miss the way life used to be. Many of us miss our normal routines. Maybe it was initially fun to work from home but for most, that’s wearing off quickly. We miss being able to give a friend a hug. We miss being able to get up and go about our lives without constantly thinking about the threat of COVID-19. So while we stay safe, we’re all grieving big and small losses of the life we knew. And we don’t know yet if it will ever completely return.

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Even though these are very challenging times there are some things you can do to protect or vaccinate your mental and emotional health during this very scary and uncertain time. I’ve included a few here.

Identify Losses. Name them. They can be big or small. But recognizing those losses can often be the first step to moving forward. Personally, I miss seeing my colleagues. Zoom meetings are great but it’s no substitute for in person interaction. I miss my regular appointment at Teazers where I can get entertained and also get my hair cut. I miss going into the grocery store without feeling like I’m preparing for combat. I miss going out to dinner with my husband at local restaurants.

Count Your Blessings. Take stock in what you have. Identify your strengths and resources because no matter your life circumstances, there are good things in your life. I’m thankful for so many little things these days. That first cup of hot coffee in the morning. Being able to take a deep breath. Watching bluebirds busily prepare for their new family.

Accept Help and Give Help. This health crisis has forced us to realize how interconnected we really are in this world. We share everything regardless of who we are or where we live. Maybe there’s someone in your neighborhood who needs help with shopping. Maybe you need help doing yard work. There are times when we need to give to others and there are times when we need to accept help from others.

Seize the Moment. This is a great time to learn something new or develop new habits. It might be experimenting with new recipes at home or learning how to knit. Perhaps doing more reading or maybe listening to music. Maybe getting outside for some exercise. Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed, spring is happening despite the pandemic.

Set Limits. Be careful of media overexposure. Sure, it’s important to stay informed but most of us are experiencing COVID-19 information overload. Know when to walk away or turn it off. This will lessen your anxiety and allow you to focus on other important matters. Another area where setting limits is important is work/life balance. With so many working from home these days we’ve lost some of the natural boundaries that exist between work and home life. Try to structure your day and time in a way where you can achieve your work goals while also giving yourself necessary down time. And don’t be too hard on yourself.

Show gratitude. Now is the time to reach out and show those around you that you appreciate them. I’m thinking about all the healthcare workers, first responders and law enforcement. All the workers in grocery stores and restaurant workers preparing delivery and pickup orders. The truckers who are making sure deliveries arrive on time. The school personnel who are busy preparing packages to deliver to students. I’m also thinking about the farmers who continue to work hard to ensure there’s food in the pipeline. We need to recognize the sacrifices others are making at this time so that we can remain safe. Be sure to thank them and let them know how much we appreciate their efforts. Showing gratitude is good for everyone’s mental health.

In closing, even though we are in the midst of a pandemic, May is still Mental Health Awareness Month in Chenango County. Now more than ever is the time to consider the importance of our good mental health.

– By Chenango County Director of Community Mental Hygiene Services Ruth Roberts, LCSW-R