Hang in there: Impact of mental health challenges is wide, but so are resources to help
When asked about the collective status of mental health in the community, there’s one image that sticks in counselor Molly Lotz’ head.
It’s the classic motivational “Hang in there” kitten poster. There are variations, but all have a cat with its claws barely clutching onto a branch as its feet dangle in the air.
“I really don’t know many people who are thriving right now,” Lotz said. “Most people are just surviving.”
Lotz is a crisis support counselor and licensed clinical social worker at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.
Even the people who usually have all the answers are running out of answers, she said.
According to the Colorado Crisis Services, the organization has been fielding a record-breaking number of calls during the pandemic, up about 33% from the same time last year. October saw an all time high, with 24,843 contacts between individuals and Colorado Crisis Services.
Steamboat Springs counselor Colleen Clark Lay said local mental health care resources are being maxed out, and the schedules of her colleagues are “packed to the brim.”
In Routt County, there have been six deaths by suicides in 2020, said Mindy Marriott, executive director of Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide (REPS). There have been five deaths by suicide in Moffat County. In 2019, there were five suicides across the two counties.
REPS has seen a 70% increased in utilization of their complimentary therapy services as compared to this time last year, according to Marriott.
“This pandemic has also highlighted the need to continue building and fortifying existing mental health resources and treatment options within our community, region and state,” wrote Dr. Lilia Luna, psychologist and Northwest Colorado Health Behavioral Health Director in an emailed interview.
Going back to the kitten poster, it is essential, Lotz said, that people know if they do let go of the branch — there is a safety net.
“People do not have to suffer in silence,” Luna emphasized. “Doing so often exacerbates physical and emotional pain. Instead, I want them to know there are really amazing therapists and resources within our community. If someone wants help in navigating the resources available to them, they can start by scheduling an appointment at Northwest Colorado Health; we are here to partner with people and help them evaluate if our model of care or that of another organization would be a good fit for an individual’s needs. Our health care approach integrates medical, dental, behavioral and psychiatric care to promote our ability to care for an individual’s holistic health.”
For people who are underinsured or uninsured, Northwest operates on a sliding fee scale based on income.
“REPS is here to offer complimentary and confidential help to anyone in our community who is struggling with navigating the increasingly complex needs they may be facing,” Marriott stressed.
REPS now as the funding to offer five free sessions of counseling or therapy with a local provider, Marriott said. Previously, the nonprofit was limited to offering three sessions and only for people who were experiencing suicidal ideation or who had attempted suicide.
“You don’t need to have had a mental health issue or behavioral health issue or thoughts of suicide or to have experienced loss or trauma to utilize our services. We’ve opened it up for anyone who is having trouble right now,” Marriott said. “It doesn’t mean you are a weak person or can’t deal. Everyone should be taking advantage of the resources we have to keep the community as safe as possible.”
A therapist can help anyone “compartmentalize different emotions and feelings and figure out where they belong and where they are coming from,” Marriott said.
They can help with strategies for managing and getting rid those fears and anxieties.
MindSprings Health also offers services on sliding scale based on income. Visit their COVID-19 Mental Health Toolkit or call 970-879-2141 for more information.
“It’s a wonderful time to engage with a therapist,” Lotz said.
Utilize your employers EAP (employee assistance plan) if they offer one, she advised. And do it right now, so you can maximize the 2020 and 2021 benefits.
A list of local therapists can be found at steamboatcounseling.com.
Sharing with anyone can help, Lotz said. Join a support group or just talk with a friend. Schedule regular walks or phone calls.
Lotz recommends everyone identify a key person or several people in their personal circles who they can turn to when they need support.
At the end of the day, the clutching kitten poster’s ultimate message is intended to be hopeful: hang on and you will get through this.
Amid a global pandemic, Lotz noted, we are all in it together and can get through it together.
“In many ways, the impact COVID-19 is having on our community exemplifies the ubiquity of suffering and just how human it is to struggle from time to time,” wrote Luna.
On top of a pandemic and surge in local COVID-19 cases, it’s the holiday season — which can bring additional stress in a normal year.
But it is not a normal year, and people cannot necessarily celebrate, travel and spend time with friends and family in the traditional ways to which they are accustomed.
This holiday season will feel different, and it is important to acknowledge that, said Clark Lay. Do what feels right for you and your family and allow expectations to be lowered and permission to decline invitations or set aside holiday traditions.
“It’s okay to not be okay this holiday season,” advised Dr. Doreen Marshall, of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “All your feelings this season are valid, including those that are difficult or unexpected. Allow yourself to feel whatever comes. A good goal this season is not to try to feel happy throughout, but to allow your authentic feelings to surface and get support when needed to cope with them.”
This year, “go internal and make your own definition of what the holiday should be,” Clark Lay said. “Don’t forget what the holiday actually means to you and your loved ones. Pay homage to a tradition if it’s important to you. But also be open to acknowledging there’s a lot of difference in the world right now and find a way to adapt.”
The holidays can also magnify grief of loved ones lost.
On top of that, the winter season can trigger seasonal affective disorder — a type of depression related to changes in seasons.
According to numerous local mental health professionals, there is one dominant emotion they see afflicting people right now: fear and anxiety over the unknown.
“We are all wondering how long this is going to last,” Lotz said.
Luna listed some of the factors she describes as having exacerbated existing emotional health conditions or triggered new ones: lack of affordable housing, dependence on tourism to support individual and community financial stability, and limited community resources.
The pandemic, especially after so many months, “has a melting effect into all aspects of our lives,” said Clark Lay.
“Not visiting family for the holiday, unemployment, or jobs being postponed and added stress from the fear of the virus,” Marriott said. “Also, us parents who are trying to support our children with virtual learning and attempting to work. There are so many factors to navigate and even for those without a behavioral health issue, these are such challenging times.”
Older people face an increased fear of contracting the disease and death. Younger people fear infecting their more vulnerable loved ones. Isolation, especially for people who live alone, is taking a toll, Clark Lay said. And there are people wondering, “Will I ever be able to be in love?”
Dr. Jo Ann Grace, the spiritual care and bereavement coordinator for Northwest Colorado Health Hospice and Palliative Care, said she is seeing a rise in anxiety depression, especially among people who live alone or in an assisted living center.
Grace also noted a collective anxiety about the larger context, even for those not being personally affected.
And there is a divide among people that is another big stressor she is seeing, Lotz said, an “us versus them” mentality.
There is a choice people are making Grace said: the individual versus the collective.
“I’m going to do what I want to do and do it my way — or I’m going to do what’s good for the collective. … We don’t have a very good understanding of public health and how we participate in that,” she added.
The virus triggers fear and the need for people to protect themselves, Grace said. It also triggers anger about the feeling that freedoms are being taken away — or anger that many people are choosing to act in their individual interests over that of the community.
Many people are feeling “I’m doing my part — why are they not doing their part,” Lotz observed. Everyone has a different approach, she said, and that causes interpersonal stress.
But there are also opportunities for a new connectedness.
“Despite the struggle COVID19 has instigated in many, it has also preceded awe-inspiring examples of resilience, creativity and perseverance within the members of the community we serve,” Luna observed.
“If we could channel that kitty,” Lotz said, “And say, ‘Okay, I’m looking for other people who are just hanging in there. I’m going to give them some grace. I know very few people are at their best right now. Everyone is barely hanging on.’”
And know that if you do let go, she emphasized again and again, there is a safety net. There are people who can help.
Find new connections — different ones, Lotz suggested. “Look for a new definition of connection. Find those in small and unexpected places. And once you have that connection sit in it.”
Lotz’ best advice to keep hanging on is to find connections where you can and figure out what makes you feel good — even for a moment — and add more of that into your life.
Lotz also recommended pausing to make an honest assessment of where you are at mentally and emotionally, and know where you can find support. Contact your primary care provider if you need to connect to professional help in terms of therapy, medication or just advice. There are many different modalities of therapy, she said, and many can be done remotely.
“This is hard. This is hard for everyone. We are all struggling. Our moments of thriving are few and far between so take them where you can find them. And remember we are all that cat just barely hanging on. Some of us might fall — and what do we have in place that will allow for us all to be okay?”
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