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Pandemic taking toll on our mental health
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Pandemic taking toll on our mental health

From the Coronavirus update Northeast Iowa series
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WATERLOO – Some days Ashley Christensen handles it all like a champ. Other days, the business owner and mom of three does all she can to not wilt under the pressure of a new normal — life amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s constant. The kids are on total lockdown. Since the Friday before spring break they’ve had no change of scenery. We have to wash and sanitize everything. Our grocery bill has tripled, on top of my business tanking in March. We are running on fumes. It’s so stressful,” she said.

Paul Wehrman, a licensed mental health counselor with MercyOne Waterloo, has a message for Christensen and others whose mental health has taken a hit in this uncertain time.

“You are not alone,” he said.

Indeed, nearly half of people in the U.S. say the pandemic has affected their mental health, with 19% reporting a “major impact,” according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted March 25 to 30. Women, Hispanic adults and black adults report higher rates, the survey said.

From fear of contracting the virus to anxiety and depression over the economic fallout, we are a nation on edge.

“People are grieving,” said Peggy Huppert, executive director of Iowa’s National Alliance on Mental Illness. “This has never, never happened before in our lifetimes. 9/11 is the other seminal moment that people talk about as affecting all of us in different ways. But we could still gather. We could still go to church, go to the mall, have get-togethers, go grocery shopping. That sense of normalcy in our everyday lives pretty much stayed the same. We can’t do that with this. We cannot underestimate the power of that change on our collective mental health.”

Christensen agrees.

“I am a seasoned vet at being a stay-at-home mom and working at the same time. But this is not business as usual. I have three kids at home. They can’t play with their friends. They can’t go to the park across the street. They can’t go anywhere.”

A chef by trade, Christensen owns Taste, a personal chef and catering business. Orders came to a screeching halt mid-March, drastically cutting the family’s income. She and her husband worry about making their house payments and feeding their kids. Christensen is on a long list of small business owners who have filed for grants and unemployment. This, of course, on top of worries about contracting the virus.

“It is so much,” Christensen said. “I can’t sleep. I can’t focus. I had to ask for help because I was losing my sh*t trying to remain calm and centered, and be an amazing mom.”

She reached out to her health care provider, who prescribed medication for situational depression and anxiety. She also is spending time outside daily with the kids, which is important for mental health, experts say.

“We get a lot of energy from being outside, the breeze and sun in your face. Research shows how it can adjust your mood and the way you’re thinking about things. With (the pandemic) we’re dealing with now, a change of scenery, different colors and temperatures and smells and sights does a really good shift in our brain,” said Amanda Schara, a licensed mental health counselor and Employee Assistance Program manager at UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital.

Christensen’s kids, Lilly, 12; Jack, 10; and Max 5, will all celebrate birthdays in the next few weeks while continuing to shelter in place. The isolation is talking a toll on them too, she said.

“I have to say no to them seeing their friends. Max has some anxiety and worries about me getting (the virus), or him getting it. He asks me if we’re going to die. I have to tell him we’re fine, we’re safe, we’re healthy. It just makes me want to cry,” Christensen said. “I have to be very careful about my own fears because they absorb it.”

Huppert said kids can bounce back from tough times, but this time is different.

“I really think we are going to see some long-term implications of this,” she said. “Kids are resilient, but the idea of having to stay home for months is something else. Kids are missing out on some major things that are important to them that are a part of maintaining their own mental health. They aren’t seeing their friends. They should be starting all the spring sports. They are not. They can’t go to the playground or park. High school students are missing out on milestones like prom and graduation.

“And we don’t know the consequences of the fear and anxiety and worrying about their loved ones, parents and grandparents. Kids don’t express those fears, but they’re there.”

Wehrman said anxiety comes from feeling like we have no control. He advises people to make a list of everything we’re still capable of doing, like cooking our own food, playing board games and doing yard work.

“When you focus your thoughts on positive things you get a sense of being back in control of those things. When we feel in control, the less likely we are to worry,” he said.

Calling friends is also good for our mental health, Wehrman noted.

Every other night, Christensen and several friends meet via FaceTime to commiserate. She said they’re proud of her for speaking candidly to The Courier about the mental health issues facing so many families right now.

“All the moms have kids at home we’re all going through the same thing. There’s just no answer right now. We just have to keep on keeping on and smiling to our kids and washing our hair and our sweatpants.”

Schara has spent the last few weeks helping colleagues at UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital prepare for a surge of COVID-19 cases in Black Hawk County. Health care workers have been in a state of “anticipatory anxiety,” she said.

“None of us have seen this before. It’s a bit daunting and overwhelming. People are kind of in go mode right now, figuring out the best processes to keep patients and themselves safe. People are worried. Will I have enough equipment to keep me safe? Will I be able to protect my family when I go home? How can I make sure my job isn’t putting anyone else in danger? There’s a higher level of necessary anxiety to be ready when the surge hits.”

The surge may have begun. On Friday, Black Hawk County reported an additional 14 cases, the largest one-day increase in the county by far, and added three more Saturday, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. On Thursday, Allen Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Russell Adams said the hospital is caring for three COVID-19 patients in its intensive care unit. The three are on ventilators.

Schara said the UnityPoint team has been working on a plan to meet the physical and mental health needs of patients and hospital employees. They expect to see a surge in mental health needs as the number of COVID-19 cases rise.

“This is a brand-new scenario. We need to make sure we’re managing mental health needs as best we can,” she said.

That will include the need for additional mental services for health care workers long after the pandemic ends. A report in the medical journal Lancet said the pandemic likely will trigger anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in those and other front line workers.

“I think there will be a PTSD sort of response,” Schara said. “Lives are going to be very different after this.”

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During a phone conversation with a nurse, a MercyOne patient revealed she was in jeopardy of running out of her medications. Normally the patient would pick up her medications from a local pharmacy, but the COVID-19 pandemic changed that.

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