News & Features

Mental Health During a Public-Health Crisis

Practitioners are offering telehealth and suggest structured activities, getting outside to cope with COVID-19 anxiety

As social distancing becomes the new norm and coronavirus-caused closures continue to rattle Montana, mental health professionals are responding to an uptick in anxiety and fear of what the uncertain future holds.

Many clinics are transitioning to telehealth, but psychologist Dr. Sara Boilen of Sweetgrass Psychological Services in Whitefish says their doors remained open, with intense precautionary measures in place, as of March 20, while she also encourages remote appointments to prevent COVID-19’s spread.

“A lot of people want to sit in our space and feel normal and kind of feel the calm and security in our building,” Boilen said.

Boilen offers video chat and phone call services, encouraging people to find private spaces, even if it’s in their car. While Sweetgrass encourages this shift to telehealth, Boilen says some people have encountered issues like a lack of privacy or lack of WiFi for video chat or cell service in their home. Others don’t like telehealth.

“Not everybody likes looking at their face when they’re crying,” Boilen said.

But Boilen says telehealth poses challenges with children’s therapy too since there’s so much playtime involved in their sessions. She’s working to address these issues by coaching parents to help their kids.

Boilen is also seeing an uptick in new patients who are experiencing anxiety in the wake of coronavirus uncertainty.

“We don’t do well with the unknown,” she said.

Dr. Michael Newman, a psychiatrist at Kalispell Regional Healthcare, also points to the anxiety associated with coronavirus uncertainty. In a live KRH Facebook video stream, Newman answered community members’ mental health questions and offered coping mechanisms for dealing with elevated anxieties.

“There’s a fair amount of anxiety going around,” Newman said. “There’s uncertainty. How long will it last? How severe is it going to be?”

Newman says social distancing should not be confused with social isolation, and while it’s important to keep a safe physical distance, people can use technology and social media to replace in-person interactions in the meantime.

Similarly, Boilen prefers the term “physical distancing” and also encourages the use of video chat, apps and technology to remain social, while limiting the Netflix vortex.

Limiting media consumption is another way to avoid anxiety and overwhelming feelings, whether it’s giving yourself a time limit or the number of times you check per day, she said.

She also suggests picking up new hobbies to distract the brain and redirect to something positive. Getting outside is another coping mechanism, although remaining six feet apart from others is advised.

“Staying six feet apart is not that hard if you’re on a trail walk,” Boilen said.

Soothing practices like meditation, yoga and cooking are other beneficial ways to decompress, she said.

Newman suggests that people get into some sort of routine, whether that’s cleaning the house or tackling house projects.

“I just want to reiterate … don’t panic,” Newman said. “Panic doesn’t get anybody anywhere.”

Sweetgrass will offer a two-week online meditation course, starting Monday, March 23. For more information, visit http://sweetgrasspsychological.com/specialofferings.

Pathways Treatment Center at KRH is open 24/7, call (406) 756-3940 for more information.

For additional COVID-19 resources, visit https://www.krh.org/krhc/patients-and-visitors/covid-19-preparedness-and-updates.

maggie@flatheadbeacon.com

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