Mental health experts give advice

Stress takes on a whole new meaning during a pandemic. As some people are working from home, cooking, homeschooling, rationing groceries, missing family members or facing financial problems, the word “overwhelming” can feel like an understatement.

Medical professionals and leaders in the mental health field are reminding everyone to take care of themselves. As the state recognizes Mental Health Awareness Month, we asked several experts for tips and resources for managing stress or other mental health challenges.

Quick tips from Delaware's Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health

Eat healthy, try not to buy or order junk food. Drink plenty of water. Sleep according to your normal routine. Exercise every day. If you can, exert yourself so that you breathe more. Watch for behaviors, such as increasing alcohol or drugs, that seem to help you cope. Spend time outside. Going outside expands your perspective. Follow social distancing guidelines outside. Set and maintain a routine if working from home. When feeling overwhelmed, make a list of things you can control or influence and things you cannot. Use technology to maintain social connections with people you trust and want to feel close to. Find reliable news sources that report facts. If faith is a part of your life, lean on it for support.

One of the most common tips was to stay connected, whether that’s with friends, family or a licensed counselor.

“I haven’t spoken to a single person who has not been affected in some way,” said Joshua Thomas, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Delaware. “This is a time we can come together and support each other even if the need is not for a clinical resource but for someone who is able to care for you and able to listen.”

Talk to someone

Many experts agreed that social media and technology can help people feel connected, but even a simple phone call or text to a friend can make a difference. Larence Kirby is the state’s director of veterans services and a private practice counselor. After 30 years of active duty, Kirby compared the need for social connection to his time deployed.

“We’re in a circumstance where just seeing a friendly face or hearing that friendly voice, that’s going to be a sense of comfort for you,” he said.

Reaching out to family members may be especially important for caregivers. Jennifer Reeder, director of educational and social services at Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, said they encourage family care meetings because it’s easy for one family member to feel like all the responsibility is on them.

“So often caregivers forget to care for themselves because they’re so focused on trying to make sure their loved one is safe,” she said. She recommended talking to friends or connecting with a support group.

Several support groups are online now. Delaware Changing Lives, started by mindfulness advocate Sam Beard, offers different groups for everyone from college students to people in recovery.

If people are struggling with their mental health or substance abuse, they can talk to a licensed counselor.

Rick Urey is the chief of addiction and transition services at the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. For those who turn to alcohol or drugs when they’re stressed or lonely, talking to others can be lifesaving, he said.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing a high rise in alcohol use. People are definitely drinking a lot more right now,” Urey said. “If people don’t connect with people, we’re going to lose them.” He said the state’s overdoses have spiked, too.

He oversees the state’s new Bridge Clinics, which help people connect with mental health resources regardless of ability to pay. There is one in each county and one mobile clinic. All have extended their hours.

“I think it’s important to allow people in, and don’t be afraid to ask for help because everyone is feeling stressed with this,” he said.

The state and many advocacy organizations have helplines that people can call or text if they need to talk to someone. Most of these lines are staffed by peers, people who have been through similar mental health challenges.

Breathe, meditate or pray

Meditation can be intimidating, but Kirby encouraged people to find time to be quiet. For example, he said he enjoys using an app that plays rain sounds. “If you’re able to really concentrate and focus, you’re able to take yourself away from the stressors that are out there.”

Davis recommended a practice from the Benson-Henry Institute where people can repeat a word or phrase, like “peace,” saying it when they inhale and again when they exhale. “It’s the repetition that causes the relaxation,” she said.

She suggested two other practices: a body scan and guided imagery. In the first, people sit in a chair or lay down, then they tighten and relax their muscles, scanning up from their toes to their head. In the latter, they can visualize a scene like the beach and try to think of how it looks, smells, tastes and sounds.

The more people do practices like this, “the body trains itself to be more relaxed,” Davis said. Deep breathing helps the body engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of the fight-or-flight reaction and calms the body down.

Jody Wood is a pastoral counselor at Calvary Church in Dover. He encouraged people to have a positive attitude as much as possible, and he agreed with Kirby that faith can help some people find strength.

“Connecting on the spiritual side, too, is always a beneficial thing for people who are oriented that way. It gives them a chance to gain some strength there,” Wood said. “We have a comfort in the Lord, and He knows what’s going on.”

Understand yourself

Davis said it’s important to find healthy ways to cope with stress because it can cause health problems, ranging from heart disease to arthritis to high blood pressure.

“The best way to deal with it healthily is really to begin to choose to look at stress in a different way,” she said. Specifically, she advised people to fear stress less, to view it as the body’s natural response to help someone face a challenge. Once people recognize signs of stress and practice relaxation techniques, they will get better at handling it, she said.

Understanding yourself is important when maintaining family relationships, too, said Reeder. Recognizing what a loved one says or does that makes you upset and communicating that can reduce tension, she said.

“Understanding what your cues are is really important,” she said. For example, she said maybe you know you need to walk away when your hands feel tingly or your chest tightens.

Another recommendation: try to accept the situation you’re in. Kirby suggested people try to shift their mind toward the positive and look for ways they are growing in their relationships or rediscovering passions, like long walks outside or a good book.

He made an analogy to a time he was stationed on an island off the coast of Japan that was frequently battered by typhoons, which forced people to stay inside. “You look out the window and see these fierce winds and all this rain, but you accepted the circumstances. You just waited for the storm to pass.”

Mental Health Awareness Month

Traditionally, NAMI in Delaware hosts a 5K walk at Glasgow Park to raise awareness and help reduce the stigma around mental illnesses.

This year, the walk will be virtual May 30. The organization invites Delawareans to walk or run a 5K on their own.

Or, people can do something else meaningful like hosting a Zoom call with friends, making an encouraging sign about mental health and hanging it in their window or using chalk art to spread a positive message for passersby.

“It’s a time where we acknowledge as a community that mental health issues are important,” Executive Director Joshua Thomas said. “This messaging is so vital every year, but this year even more so, when I think collectively we in the community are understanding this on a very personal level.”

For more or to register, visit https://www.namiwalks.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.EVENT&eventID=902.