To curb the spread of COVID-19, public health experts have urged people nationwide to practice social distancing, and many states, including New Mexico, have implemented measures ordering residents to stay at home. Now, as a result, millions are self-isolating and limiting social contact by teleworking or attending school virtually.
But prolonged social isolation can have adverse effects on mental health, especially for people already grappling with mental conditions like depression and anxiety, said New Mexico State University counselor Louie Atencio, who works for the Aggie Health and Wellness Center’s Employee Assistance Program, a confidential counseling and referral service for NMSU faculty and staff.
“When we’re talking about the heightened aspects of mental health issues during this time, we’re talking about a specific part of the population that often struggles with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder,” Atencio said. “They already feel to a certain extent that they’re isolated from the rest of the community because some people often have a difficult time understanding mental health issues.”
According to a recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45 percent of adults nationwide said the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their mental health, with 19 percent saying it has had a “major impact.”
Atencio said it’s normal for people to experience elevated levels of stress and anxiety during this challenging time. But people with a diagnosed condition, he noted, may feel further isolated as a result of restrictive measures limiting social interactions.
“That’s one of the big concerns,” he said.
For some people struggling with the symptoms of depression or anxiety – such as feeling nervous, restless or tense, or having a sense of panic, danger or doom – relaxation exercises can help them cope, Atencio said. Since most people are isolating at home, he recommends searching for some relaxation videos and techniques from online sources like YouTube. Many of these web-based resources are free, and some include useful how-to videos, such as how to use mindfulness or self-compassion exercises to deal with their anxiety, he said.
“I have recommended to my clients in my private practice and students here, as well as employees, that they might consider going online and searching for some self-help videos on YouTube on how to utilize basic relaxation exercises,” he said.
Atencio encourages those without computer or internet access to contact the National Alliance on Mental Health at 800-950-NAMI or the Doña Ana County chapter at 510-770-6264. He noted that NAMI’s hotline offers a free peer-support helpline that provides information, resource referrals and support to people living with mental health conditions.
At NMSU, Atencio said, the Aggie Health and Wellness Center has a daily on-call counselor available to assist NMSU students and employees in crisis situations from 8 to 11:30 a.m. and 1 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Last month, the center transitioned into telehealth services to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure. Atencio and other counselors from the center are now speaking with patients by phone and through Zoom, he said.
NMSU students or employees who need to speak with the center’s on-call counselor should call 575-646-1512. For after-hours assistance, they can visit https://wellness.nmsu.edu/crisis-assistance/ for a list of resources available in Las Cruces and New Mexico.
Creative visualization exercises also can help people manage their anxiety, Atencio said. For example, he practices an exercise that involves a person visualizing a safe place – either real or imaginary – while taking a series of deep breaths.
“I ask them hold their breath at least four times for as long as they can, then slowly release it, and repeat this at least four times,” he said. “At that point, they may be able to visualize your safe place, and they can say to themselves, ‘When I’m in my safe place, I can be safe.’”
He also tells patients to gently rub the side of their cheek with their index finger when they find their safe place while doing this exercise, he said. This will help patients when they experience anxiety in public settings, he added.
“By doing this,” he said, “it could potentially help them reconnect with their safe place when they’re out in public and begin to feel anxious. What they want to do is gently rub their cheek to reconnect with their safe place; however, this does require practice.”
To learn more about this exercise, Atencio suggests searching for “Create Your Safe Place” or “Guided Meditation to Find Your Safe Place” on YouTube.
Some people may not experience heightened stress, depression, anxiety or other mental health issues during their self-isolation, but they can help others who are having a difficult time.
“I would encourage these people who are fortunate enough not to be struggling with these mental health symptoms to consider becoming a mentor for their friends,” Atencio said, “and reach out to their friends that they know are struggling or have struggled in the past with these symptoms, and let them know that they’re there for them.”
He said making a simple phone call to someone in distress can have a very positive impact.
“Just being able to hear someone else’s voice on the other end of the phone can often make a huge difference,” he said. “It lets you know that you are still connected to someone.”
Just as important as helping others, Atencio said, is remembering that the current crisis is temporary. “Ultimately, as a species, we are survivors. We are people who meet challenges. And this, by all means, is a huge challenge,” he said. “But as long as we have faith in each other and our higher powers, we should be able to come through this time.”
For more information about counseling services at the Aggie Health and Wellness Center, visit https://wellness.nmsu.edu.