May is Mental Health Month, and according to Paul Gionfriddo, President and CEO of Mental Health America of Wisconsin, it has never been more important than this year.

“Until now, there were still some people who believed that mental health wasn’t everyone’s concern. They thought that mental health resources – even though they were shared with millions – were aimed at just a small group of people – the one in five who have a mental health concern in any given year,” said Gionfriddo.

“That isn’t the case today. Just weeks ago, we had no idea that all our worlds were going to be turned upside down by the coronavirus. Or that the associated worry, isolation, loneliness, and anxiety would be something that literally everyone – all five in five – would experience,” he said.

Hospitals and health systems play an important role in providing behavioral health care and helping patients find resources available in their community. Heather Erickson, Director of Behavioral Health Services at Amery Hospital & Clinic, said, “For being a rather sparsely populated rural area, we are so fortunate to have the wealth of mental health resources that we do – including free resources and information available to the public to provide additional support related to COVID-19.” She shared https://www.polkcountybehavioralhealthdept.org/home/mental-illness/covid-19/ has several informational articles and links related to taking care of yourself during COVID times from the Polk County Health Department.

In addition, Amery Hospital & Clinic has a wonderful continuum of mental health care services – all of which remain open during COVID-19. Services include:

  • Inpatient acute care adult psychiatric unit
  • Outpatient Therapy/Counseling Services for ages 5 through older adults who have primary care physicians at AHC
  • Structured Outpatient Group Therapy Services for adults, providing more intensive and frequent group therapy sessions
  • Programs for Change adult alcohol and drug treatment services
  • Outpatient Psychiatric Services for ages 5 through older adults who have primary care physicians at AHC

Erickson said, “In terms of tips for staying positive in our presently uncertain world, the short answer is – this is HARD, but necessary work for all of us. One of the things that I have been working on here at AHC is addressing support for employees’ mental and emotional health during COVID-19.”

She feels the impact of COVID-19 is universal in the way that it has increased stress and anxiety at some level for everyone; for some, it has completely turned their world and schedules and all things they knew to be “certain” upside down.

“What we know about change and stress is that it impacts our bodies and our brains in ways that we sometimes don’t recognize initially as being signals that we are experiencing increased stress. When we encounter unknown situations, our amygdala (the part of our brain responsible for perception of emotions such as anger, fear, happiness, sadness) becomes activated ultimately to protect us; we fear the unknown as part of our instinct to stay alive. But, when our amygdala is activated for such a long period of time due to an unknown situation our brain can easily become stuck in the fear – which eventually starts leading to other negative thoughts and emotions such as anger, despair, and even intense anxiety. This is NORMAL, this is a normal body/brain response to unknown situations,” said Erickson.

She said we are all experiencing this to some degree. “The GOOD news is that we can retrain our brains to focus on positives and opportunities! This takes practice and intentional work, but there are some simple, practical ways that we can disengage our brains from the fear/negative emotion reaction and refocus,” said Erickson. 

The Resilient Wisconsin Initiative lists some important, healthy ways to cope and stay connected with others including:

  • Get the three goods. That’s good-for-you foods, a good night’s sleep, and a good amount of exercise every day.
  • Stay connected to your support system. Reach out to family and friends, colleagues, and community groups in whatever way you can—calls, texts, video chats, and more.
  • Spend time away from focusing on COVID-19. Don’t let the pandemic take over what you read, watch, or talk about. And don’t be afraid to ask friends and family to talk about something else.
  • Check in with yourself. Everyone’s reaction to stress is different. Difficulty concentrating or sleeping, irritability, fatigue, and even stomachaches can be normal. Be sure to reach out to your support system if your distress begins to become unmanageable.

Erickson said, “Creating intentional focus on positive opportunities and gratitude each day is a key part of helping ourselves to remain healthy. An easy thing that I do is to set an intention each day, and then reflect back each evening. My intention is this: What are 3 good things that I expect to happen today, and what’s my role in making it happen? Then, each night: What are 3 things that went well today, and what was my role in making them happen? Another simple way to cultivate positive energy is to practice gratitude, and this is something I also do each day with my family during dinner: What are 3 things that you’re grateful for? In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.”

She said, “Most of all – we need to remember to be kind to ourselves, and to accept that we’re all doing the best that we can in what seems like an impossible situation.”

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