The COVID-19 pandemic has doubled the number of calls to a Chicago nonprofit, to 300 a week, from people seeking help with mental health crises.
And the fallout from the pandemic lockdown will require long-term soul-searching. That recognition underpins the month of May’s recognition as Mental Health Awareness Month, and its timeliness is prescient.
“We’re dealing with chronic, long-term stress,” said Ben Frank, chief wellness officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago, which operates a helpline to aid people in getting help, finding a healthcare provider and figuring out insurance coverage.
“You don’t just finish a period of time like this without asking, ‘What does it mean to return to normal?’ ” Frank said. “We all need support in the midst of this.”
So how do we recognize and deal with our emotions? How do we name what we’re feeling? And since mental-health providers are overwhelmed with people seeking help even as COVID restrictions ease, how do we remain patient in figuring out these things?
Stress is one of the biggest culprits. It takes an emotional and physical strain on coping resources because of everyday problems, said Liza Suárez, co-director of the Urban Youth Trauma Center, director of the Pediatric Stress and Anxiety Disorders Clinic and associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“Stress can impact our body, mood and behavior,” Suárez said. “It can take the form of muscle tension, fatigue, sleep problems, restlessness, being irritable and cranky, feeling overwhelmed. It can cause us to over- or under-eat or misuse substances. We may try to keep others at bay.”
Anxiety can show up as intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations to the point it can interfere with work, school and relationships. Signs of persistent anxiety include trouble concentrating; feeling nervous, restless or tense and sensing impending danger or panic.
Depression takes on another layer of feelings, marked by persistent sadness and loss of interest in things that you once enjoyed. You might feel guilty, worthless, slowed down,or have trouble concentrating. Depression also can involve a noticeable weight gain or loss.
What to do?
One key element in reclaiming your true self is to find balance among work, family, rest and fun, Suárez said.
“We have to find joy somewhere,” she said. “It will make us more miserable to focus on things we cannot control. Lots of things are unfair and stressful. So advocating and joining others in making a change is also important.”
Frank said gaining a sense of renewal outside of finding a professional therapist may involve meditation, physical movement, getting involved in meaningful work or projects or being open to family and friends’ expressions of concern.
Technology can help. Dr. Jun Ma, a UIC professor of medicine, is leading a team researching how well a virtual agent based on Amazon’s Alexa voice service can talk people through the seven steps of a counseling method known as problem-solving therapy. The steps are: Identify the problem, set a goal, think of solutions, evaluate each solution, decide on the solution, take action to implement the solution and assess the outcome.
“This is a form of treatment that anyone could access on a phone or mobile device where you can download the Alexa app,” Ma said. “It’s about accessing treatment on demand at any time. It’s at people’s fingertips.”
The team is recruiting people with mild to moderate symptoms of anxiety or depression to see whether talking with Lumen — a virtual mental health agent — helps them cope and feel better.
The technology isn’t meant to replace a human counselor, Ma said, but to make proven psychotherapy more accessible.
Quick access is important and needed because counseling services are swamped, and people can wait weeks for an appointment.
Whether it’s friends, family, a virtual assistant, a psychotherapist or a yoga and meditation leader, “There’s not a time when you say, there are no more options,” Frank said.
“Each of us has inherent value,” he said. “We’re worth the time and energy. We have to care about each other. We can figure it out no matter how hard it is. There’s no one recovery story. Everyone is different. It’s about friendship, kindness and diligence. You’ve got to keep working at it.”
The NAMI help line — (833-626-4244 — operates from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Anyone interested in screening to participate in the clinical trial of the Lumen virtual coach can call or text (312) 515-1094 or email SPEACstudy@uic.edu.