As COVID-19 related travel restrictions, business closures and stay-at-home orders isolate Minnesotans for extended periods of time, this presents new challenges for mental health care officials across the state — whether that’s reaching patients through limited access and few tools available, or the negative effects of prolonged isolation on the psyche.

The Dispatch spoke with a host of mental health care professionals to discuss the negative effects of COVID-19 isolation (as well as connected issues, like economic recession) — whether that’s chronic loneliness, clinical depression, anxiety, stress, lack of stimulation, substance abuse, or other illnesses.

“The uncertainty and the fear of the unknown is probably the worst part,” said Dr. Shiela Klemmetsen, a family practice doctor who works in urgent care and as the co-director of the substance abuse program at the Essentia Health clinic in Baxter. “We’re eight or nine days into this and the governor has only prolonged that shelter-in-place order. Social isolation is going to take a toll, especially for people that talking and chatting were their coping mechanism. There’s a grief and a loss to that.”

However, these mental health workers also presented a positive, proactive look at the work to alleviate people’s ailments, even if it’s through interactions on Skype or texts over the phone. There are people, institutions and resources available for those in need, it’s simply a matter of providing them for a nation of temporary shut-ins.

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During a conference call Friday, March 17, Stephanie Downey, a suicide prevention coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Health, and Anna Lynn, the mental health promotion coordinator with the MDH, said it’s difficult to predict how national events will take shape in coming weeks, or how Minnesotans will respond to it.

The coronavirus pandemic, and the social distancing measures to try to combat its spread, are creating challenges and opportunities, as people look at using technology and other ways to connect and provide mental health care services.  Photo illustration by Metro Newspaper Service
The coronavirus pandemic, and the social distancing measures to try to combat its spread, are creating challenges and opportunities, as people look at using technology and other ways to connect and provide mental health care services. Photo illustration by Metro Newspaper Service

“We acknowledge that these are very difficult, trying and complicated times and we are doing our best. We know people are potentially going to have more struggles. … When we're asked to physically distance ourselves from other human beings, it will exacerbate people's struggles. We know that when we have economic struggles, we have new stressors,” Downey said. “We also know that we have a lot of resources, or things that we're promoting, that we can still help people to get connected and be connected, even during this difficult time.”

Downey and Lynn both emphasized that, despite myriad external factors, mental health is something well within people’s control. Through running or taking walks, reaching out to family or friends or social groups, finding alone time, distance learning, eating right and getting enough sleep, moderating news consumption or screen time, as well as taking part in a litany of mental health initiatives the state is putting together — these are all good ways, Lynn and Downey said, to ensure one stays sharp, well adjusted and resilient through extended periods of isolation.

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In turn, Lynn noted, mental health providers are seeing communities banding together in unorthodox ways — such as arranging collective morning coffee gatherings via Zoom video chats, for example.

“In many ways, this crisis is providing us an opportunity — recognizing that we all have mental health needs. We’re trying to share a piece of hope,” added Lynn, who noted the crisis is enabling mental health professionals to experience the struggles of their patients in an intimate way. “Our team is using our social media platforms to communicate, have our meetings where we can actually still see each other, and talk with each other. We're connecting regularly. These are all important components to stop, take a breath, and remind ourselves — we’re OK.”

Some resources to check out:

  • National Parent Helpline 1-855-427-2736 http://www.nationalparenthelpline.org/ Operated by Parents Anonymous.

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) TTY 1- 800-787-3224 Email and live chat are also available at https://www.thehotline.org/.

  • Postpartum Support International Helpline 1-800-944-4773 https://www.postpartum.net/.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255.

  • Option 1 for Military Crisis Text Line Text “MN” to 741741.

  • Mobile Crisis Team (Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties) at 800-462-5525.

  • Minnesota Peer Support Connection Warmline — text or call 844-739-6369. Available seven days a week from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m.

Check out MDH websites for resources on mental well-being during COVID-19. Sites may be updated frequently.

Some of the current resources include:

  • Supporting Mental Well-being During COVID-19 (Includes tips for children and parents, and kids activities).

  • Tips to reduce COVID-19 anxiety.

  • Care for coronavirus anxiety.

  • Behavioral Health Emergency Preparedness COVID-19 resources.

  • Self-Care and applying psychological first aid (especially for first responders and public health).

  • Mental health related hotlines.

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GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch.