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Ginnie Graham: Six must-know answers to questions about handling mental health in a pandemic

Ginnie Graham: Six must-know answers to questions about handling mental health in a pandemic

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Terri White

Terri White Provided

My cracking point came when the water to my neighborhood suddenly went off at 8:17 p.m. Wednesday, and the city had no information online or by phone.

Until that point, I held it together, for months. It’s been a year of distance learning with teenagers, working from a spare room, a health scare, broken cars and frustrations from divisive politics.

All that I managed. It was the winter storm that did me in; not knowing the return of water brought on panic.

Barricading myself in a bedroom with the last two water bottles, I broke down and reached out to friends and my sister, needing reassurance.

It seems so silly now; everyone was dealing with water and pipe problems. Other people had it worse. But, for whatever reason in that moment, it brought on the end of days in my mind.

Mental health is taking a beating right now. The uncertainty and stress almost has been too much for so many people.

People are at the edge, and some falling off.

There are big tragedies: Sand Springs mourns two murder-suicide cases involving families, and the death of a Tulsa man who was homeless has broken people’s hearts.

Worries are mounting about unreported child abuse and domestic violence. Advocates are bracing for worse suicide reports from the past year.

Many episodes are unseen, like my freak-out. My spiral was stopped with the help of others and techniques like meditative breathing.

But, every person is different with a different trigger and tipping point. No matter where a person lands on the spectrum of mental health needs, resources are available, said Mental Health Association Oklahoma Executive Director Terri White.

White, former director of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, answers the most common questions about the pandemic’s unique mental health trauma:

It’s been almost a year since the first pandemic shutdown. What are the immediate mental health needs Oklahoma is seeing?

White: “Our partners at the Healthy Minds Policy Initiative have presented dire projections about its effects on our mental health and substance use that we are seeing come true. For instance, Oklahoma had a 50% increase in opioid overdose deaths during 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Whether it is increased rates of anxiety, depression, trauma, substance use or suicide, we can either address these issues now or pay a high price for Oklahomans struggling with untreated mental health needs for years and decades to come.

“The research is clear: When individuals experience traumatic situations that exacerbate or even cause mental health issues, those issues do not simply go away when the trauma is over without access to quality care.”

In addition to the pandemic, how are other events – national politics, winter storms, economic challenges – are affecting mental health? Do they cause different mental health reactions?

White: “These issues can have a range of effects on everyone’s mental health. Some people may experience an occasional day or two of feeling overwhelmed; others may be experiencing significant increases in anxiety.

“For people who have experienced some form of seasonal depression, this brutal winter storm has only made dealing with mental health that much more challenging. Increased substance use, including alcohol consumption, is affecting a growing number of Oklahomans.

“For people experiencing any of these mental health challenges, prolonged uncertainty about your circumstances or ongoing or repeated exposure to trauma often increases the acuity of these challenges.”

This past year has brought a constant stream of discomforting news. It’s important to have accurate, updated information, but it can add to anxiety. What can be done to mitigate the effects?

White: “It is critical for Oklahomans to stay informed about some current events, for example, extreme weather and COVID-19 safety measures. But it has never been easier to be over-informed than right now.

“We must all find balance. Don’t “doom scroll” through news or social media. Set limitations with those the same way that you would set boundaries with other aspects of life.

“I recommend having a close group of people you trust to honestly talk about these issues with or connect to free support groups like the Mental Health Association offers. It’s also imperative to regularly practice healthy sleep, nutrition, exercise and stress coping, such as meditation, puzzles, music and reading a fun book.”

Some Oklahomans may be experiencing mental health needs for the first time. For a person unfamiliar with mental health issues, how does someone know when a point is reached requiring outside intervention?

White: “Just as you might occasionally see a doctor for a general checkup, there are ways to be proactive about your mental health instead of waiting for a crisis.

“Mental Health Association Oklahoma offers mental health screening resources that can help you determine if connecting to services might help. There are similar tools offered online or by some primary care physicians.

“If a mental health or addiction professional is needed, there are services, including telehealth services, available in Oklahoma.

“For Oklahomans who need help navigating these narrow doors, Mental Health Association Oklahoma offers a free assistance center via 918-585-1213 or info@mhaok.org. Details at mhaok.org. Additionally, any Oklahoman can call 211 and ask about counseling and mental health resources available in their community.”

Some high-profile deaths have put a spotlight on mental health awareness. What can people do to help others? Where can people access information to know the signs of concern and how to intervene?

White: “To be clear, there is nothing inherently violent about mental illness. People may assume when they hear about a high-profile death or homicide that the person must have mental illness, but people affected by mental illness are less likely to be violent than someone from the general population, and most of these deaths are not connected to mental illness.

“That isn’t to say that it never happens, though. The most frequent form of death related to mental illness is suicide or drug overdose.

“If you are concerned that someone you know is struggling, you can reach out to call 211, which is the statewide suicide hotline, or Mental Health Association Assistance Center.

“When we talk about recognizing signs for high-profile homicides and deaths together, domestic violence is most frequently involved. I would direct anyone who is worried about a friend or loved one experiencing domestic violence to reach out to Domestic Violence Intervention Services (DVIS) in Tulsa or their local domestic violence intervention program.

“They provide comprehensive intervention and prevention services to women, children, and men affected by domestic and sexual violence in Tulsa, and the surrounding communities. You can learn about its life-saving resources at dvis.org.”

With vaccine rollouts occurring, optimism is appearing. Yet, mental health issues aren’t just going to disappear. What should Oklahoma expect? Are there going to be unique mental health needs post-pandemic?

White: “This pandemic has generated trauma, but I am optimistic about a light at the end of the tunnel — and I’m optimistic that we can address the increased mental health issues it has and will cause.

“The unique part of this that we all need to understand is that those effects can surface right away, months and sometimes even a couple of years after the trauma is experienced.

“That means we all need to educate ourselves on signs and symptoms, how to talk to our family and how to reach out for help.

“It means as children return to school, teachers and personnel need to be open to and well trained to recognize mental health issues in students. Elected officials, at all levels, need to dedicate additional resources now to address these issues as demand for services has and will continue to increase.

“Insurance companies need to be sure they are implementing full mental health parity and ensuring those they cover do not struggle with access to care.

“Businesses need to be sure the insurance plans they offer have comprehensive mental health benefits for employees and their families.

“It has always been true that it will take all of us to really address the issues of mental health in Oklahoma — this has never been more important than it is now, but together we can do it successfully.”


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