Fred Bean responding to a NAMI Maine hotline call before he started working from home. (Courtesy Alicia Hynes)
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Last month, volunteer Roland Thibault led his first virtual support group on Zoom for the Maine branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Thibault and his co-leader began leading the support group to provide a space for individuals living with mental health challenges to share their experiences. The group, which began meeting biweekly and in-person in January, now is one of several biweekly Zoom support groups NAMI offers and only one of its 31 total support groups.

“The interesting thing with mental illness is that obviously (the pandemic) exacerbates some issues, but it’s just the same,” Thibault said. “The key piece is knowing that someone’s been where you’ve been.” 

At a time as stressful and unprecedented as the present, families and individuals must create new at-home routines and search for new ways to maintain social connections, preserving any semblance of normalcy.

Circumstances like this can exacerbate existing mental health problems or even bring to light mental health challenges for people without pre-existing awareness, according to Alicia Hynes, public relations manager at NAMI Maine.

A poll conducted March 25-30 for the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 45 percent of American adults feel that worry and stress related to coronavirus have had a negative impact on their mental health. About one in five of those adults said it has been a “major impact.”

“We need to acknowledge that this is stressful and traumatic,” said Hannah Longley, a NAMI Maine social worker. “It’s OK if we’re struggling with it. Just acknowledge that there’s a grief process with it as well.” 

Luckily, there are many resources available for those struggling with mental health challenges, such as NAMI Maine and the Maine Crisis Line, that now offer increased staff and availability.

Individuals can call the NAMI helpline with questions about mental health, housing, food security, support groups, or to just find someone who will listen. This month, the helpline rolled out a new “provider match” program, which connects individuals with volunteer mental health providers in need of support for brief virtual check-ins.

NAMI Maine social worker Hannah Longley: “We need to acknowledge that this is stressful and traumatic.”

“I think all of us at some point in our lives struggle with our mental health and I’ve struggled with different situations in my life as someone who lives with anxiety,” said Longley, who has worked in the mental health field for 13 years.

“Part of what we do at NAMI is that we normalize that everyone has a physical health and a mental health,” she said, “and right now people are realizing the strain this is putting on your mental health.”

Before COVID-19, the NAMI Maine helpline received around 30-50 calls a week. By late last week, the line received nearly 10 a day, according to staffer Fred Bean.

“It’s for anyone, for someone who has never needed a therapist or a check-in or (those who) have had issues with mental health in the past,” Bean said. “But this is all unprecedented what we’re going through right now. … It’s OK to ask for help when you need it.”

Both 211 Maine and the Maine Crisis Hotline have also seen significant increases in calls.

Joseph Everett, president and chief executive of The Opportunity Alliance, said 211 Maine – a collaborative effort of the United Ways of Maine, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and The Opportunity Alliance – has a working partnership with the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It now receives more than 700 calls a day – more than triple its 200 daily calls in January.

Similarly, the Maine Crisis Hotline, which is operated by The Opportunity Alliance in collaboration with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, sees roughly 350 calls a day, 100 more than its daily average.

The Maine Crisis Line can connect trained mobile staff to individuals in all 16 counties, 24/7.

“Right now at the Maine Crisis Line, we see increased suicide ideation,” Everett said. “And we’re paying close attention to that – don’t be afraid to ask someone if they’re feeling OK.”

Grief is a common theme on calls these days, especially surrounding life events that require gathering groups of people, such as graduations, weddings, births, or deaths, he said.

“People are articulating that there’s sadness and loss around those events,” Everett said. “That’s going to become more pervasive as we lose more people and as it touches each one of us more personally.”

One way to move through the disruption of these events, Longley suggested, is to validate the challenges with those who are grieving, discuss and process those feelings together, and find new ways to mark the milestones.

“We’re not just working from home, we’re crisis-working from home. We’re not homeschooling, we’re crisis-schooling,” social worker Longley said, adding that people need to be creative in finding a routine that works for them. “It’s not just a traditional framework.”

While the virus has an unknown timeline, it is important for individuals to stay socially connected and continue a new routine that has some semblance of an old routine, she said. 

“Not everyone is able to get to a point where we can pick up new hobbies. It’s just about doing what’s right for us,” Longley said. “Try and force yourself to engage with your normal coping skills, but it doesn’t have to be a super productive time.” 

For some, that daily routine can even include a regular call to the Maine Crisis Line if one needs support or someone to talk to, Everett added. 

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, last week said he asks everyone to get help, to talk to someone. “There are folks who can be there for you even if they’re not with you,” he said in one of his daily press briefings.

Social distancing does not have to be social isolation, and taking advantage of helplines, going on walks 6 feet apart with loved ones, or using digital interfaces can facilitate routine in relationships.

“We’re told to isolate, but make sure you can find people you trust you can talk to,” NAMI volunteer Thibault said. “In some ways I think this whole pandemic is kind of pulling people closer together.”

Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.

Finding a new normal

Advice from mental health experts on how to adapt during the pandemic: 

  • Maintain as much of your normal routine as you can. Get a good night’s sleep, stay hydrated, try to balance a healthy diet, and get exercise while respecting physical distance.
  • Regulate your media and news intake. It’s important to be informed, but it’s also important to know when to turn off your phone and take a break.
  • Limit your screen time – TV, phones, computers. Overexposure can begin to affect your body’s natural cycles, like sleep and appetite.
  • Listen to your body. If that means finding a new hobby to pass time, try it out. If that’s not for you, that’s OK – be kind and forgiving with yourself.
  • Social distance does not mean social isolation. Reach out and talk to people you trust.
  • If you feel like your mental health is disrupting your day-to-day life or preventing you from engaging with people, that’s normal and you’re not alone. That’s why these resources exist. It’s important to acknowledge it and feel it.
  • Find the silver linings. Search for daily gratitudes and positive moments.

If you need help:

  • Call 211 for information and referral to community resources, 24/7. Stay up to date with COVID-19 data from the Maine CDC at maine.gov
  • For inquiries, support, or referral to resources regarding mental health, call the NAMI Maine Help Line weekdays from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. at 800-464-5767 (press 1) or email helpline@namimaine.org. Please note that the HelpLine is not a crisis line.
  • If you believe that you or someone you know could be in crisis, call the Maine Crisis Hotine at (888) 568-1112 or chat online at www.opportunityalliance.org. Psychiatric intervention and assistance from a trained staff member is available.

— Jenny Ibsen