Thoughtful man sits on chair with a cloud above and raining.

Much of the work mental health professionals perform, Andy Hagler says, is face-to-face; assessments, counseling, support groups. Those activities have all traditionally required people to gather in the same physical space.

But, by mid-March, Hagler and the staff at the Mental Health Association (MHA) of Forsyth County, were trying to figure out how to do all that virtually.

“Having to do everything electronically, this is just a whole new world,” says Hagler, executive director of MHA. “I’ll still be coming into the office from time to time, but for the most part, we’re all working at home. We’re going through some new waters.”

With much of the nation on lockdown due to concerns about COVID-19, mental health providers are using Zoom video conferencing and calling clients to check in on them.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and MHA and The Ramkat live music venue had planned to team up for a benefit concert, Sound Minds, a show to raise awareness of and funds for the community’s mental health resources, but that has been postponed (a new date for it has not been set yet). The concert provides a different way to connect people with resources.

The first Sound Minds took place in June of last year at The Ramkat, followed by another one in August at Monstercade.

“It’s an opportunity to talk about an issue that lots of people deal with, whether it’s your own personal mental health, or that of someone in your family,” says Andy Tennille, co-owner of The Ramkat “It felt like a really good fit for us. A number of artists have written songs about the challenges they’ve faced, and music is a good way to get the issue out on the table.”

Hagler says MHA received an uptick in calls around mid-March when emergency COVID-19 measures were beginning to go into effect, but that soon leveled off. However, as people remain sheltered in place, mental health professionals are preparing for what they describe as a ripple effect from the measures taken to keep the virus’ spread under control.

“If this lingers, that’s when the mental health aspects are really going to start popping up,” he says. “And the challenge is going to be getting people connected, which is critical.”

Mental health experts have offered some advice on trying to keep from despairing and how to maintain a sense of normalcy in abnormal times.

Keep in mind that social distancing does not have to equal social disconnecting.

“It’s important to maintain physical distance, of course,” says Rachelle Redmond Barnes, chair of the Department of Psychological Sciences at Winston-Salem State University. “But it’s also important to stay connected with your family, friends, and loved ones. There’s been a lot of emphasis on video conferencing. We can also still make phone calls. And there are many people who are still writing letters.”

Get the heart pumping.

“Based on what you can do physically in your circumstances, try to go out to walk, to bike,” says Nathaniel Ivers, chair of the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University. “As long as you keep your

distance from folks, getting outside is extremely important, partially for vitamin D, but also psychologically, especially as the days get warmer.”

Make time to unwind.

“Make time to set aside just for yourself,” Barnes says. “When people work from home, you’re blurring the lines between work and pleasure. But you can’t forget to carve out that space for yourself. And consider practicing gratitude by focusing on what’s good in your life, writing letters of appreciation, writing littles notes of things you’re grateful for.”

Stay informed, but don’t get overloaded.

“I do want to know what’s happening, but you turn on the news, and every story is about COVID-19,” Ivers says. “And that can make the anxiety overwhelming. Usually when we go through a crisis, it’s not a world crisis. But this is global. So, it’s important to reach out to folks, talk about your concerns, but talk about other things, as well. And one of the most important things you can do is find ways to laugh. Find video clips on YouTube, watch movies that are comedies, just things that will allow us to look at things differently.”

Try to find a routine.

“For those who don’t have a set schedule, it can be tempting to start staying up late and sleeping in,” says Kelly Graves, executive director and co-founder of the Kellin Foundation, a Greensboro-based nonprofit that provides behavioral health services. “So one of the things that’s important to manage stress is to start creating somewhat of a routine for yourself. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same thing all the time. But try to go to bed around the same hour, try to get up around the same hour. Even if you don’t necessarily have somewhere you have to be, getting up, getting dressed, and getting ready for the day can be helpful for people’s mental health. We’ve seen through sleep research, the more you have a routine sleep process, the better the body can heal itself physically and emotionally.”

Remember that by hunkering down, you’re doing a good thing.

“What we’re doing is preventing other people from getting sick,” Hagler says. “There is that fear of the unknown, which is very natural, because as human beings we like to be in control and we like to know things. But this is going to pass. Think about something longer term.”

Struggling with mental health is more common than folks think, and that’s one of the negative stigmas that the two organizations are pushing to end.

“With great creativity, sometimes comes mental health challenges,” Tennille says. “If someone is attending the concert that night, I hope they think ‘Wow, I might give this organization a call, either for support for myself or my loved ones.’”

Many people, even those who are well off, often don’t know where to turn if they’re in need of mental health services, says Chris Dunn, who serves on the board of the MHA.

“It can be overwhelming,” he says. “It’s not like getting a cancer diagnosis and getting an oncologist. But, when you have a diagnosis that needs attention, it’s scary to not know who to call. So awareness is a big part of what we try to do, letting the community know that MHA is there and can help you when you have a need.”

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