SPRINGFIELD – State lawmakers put mental health on center stage Wednesday during a virtual town hall in which medical professionals offered advice to Illinoisans struggling with the mental and emotional pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hosted by Chicago Democrats Rep. Ann Williams, Rep. Yoni Pizer and Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, the town hall laid out the mental health challenges related to COVID-19’s social and economic disruptions and offered therapies and solutions to people affected.
“I don't think any of us is immune to the challenges we're facing. Many of us feel anxious, fearful, sad, and we're experiencing a range of emotions, a lot of ups and downs,” Williams said.
The three lawmakers presented questions to three Chicago-area medical professionals on the videoconference. The experts included the president of the Illinois Psychiatric Society, Dr. Hossam Mahmoud, psychologist Dr. Carri Hill and licensed clinic social worker Alexa James.
James, who is executive director of the Chicago affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said people are dealing with four main mental health challenges during COVID-19 – having fulfilling connections with other people; the ability to adapt to change; the ability to handle trauma; and maintaining productive activity.
“In an instant, much of that was diminished for us. Much of it was complicated or disrupted,” she said, as people’s work lives, personal lives and daily routines were changed by social distancing and Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order.
An American Psychiatric Association survey last month found 36 percent of Americans said the coronavirus pandemic is having a serious impact on their mental health, while 59 percent said it is seriously impacting their daily lives.
James said unsettled routines have especially disrupted people’s sense of purpose, which is why people stuck at home should not suddenly expect themselves to be more productive.
“Be compassionate with yourself. Be kind to yourself,” she said. “Our expectations, we get married to them, and then when we don't do them we get really disappointed. And I don't think we have any room for that right now.”
James suggested people try something positive every day in the name of self-care, whether it is “one creative thing,” “one connective thing,” “one productive thing” or “one self-care thing.”
James said she told her sister, who lives in “the middle-of-nowhere, Michigan,” to do simple things like wash her hair and put on mascara, because they “may just make you feel more human.”
Mahmoud said it is important to process what is happening by using what he calls “radical acceptance.”
“We’re going to go through tough times, but there is an end to this. And at some point, it will be over,” he said.
Impact on families
Hill, a psychologist with Jewish Family and Children’s Services in Chicago, pointed out that the major routines of school and family life have been upended, as many parents have to juggle working from home, running their households and helping their kids with remote learning.
She said that parents should lower the academic expectations they have for their children because we are in “survival mode” during this crisis.
“Our two primary goals right now are, one: to make sure everybody's healthy; and two, to maintain positive relationships,” Hill said. “And then outside of those, a lot of our other expectations may need to be adjusted in order to achieve those goals.”
For kids having trouble coping, Hill suggested that parents impose some structure, like having dinner at a normal time, setting a regular bedtime and making kids finish their school work before talking with friends.
Most importantly, Hill said, parents should talk openly and honestly to their children about COVID-19.
“Trying to protect them by not sharing things with them actually just makes them more anxious,” she said.
Along with age-appropriate information about COVID-19 and its impacts, Hill said children need emotional support when they may be acting out or seem down because of underlying stress and anxiety.
“What they need is additional support and love from everyone, so more hugs, more cuddles, that type of stuff,” she said.
Mahmoud, the psychiatrist, said that telehealth services have increased in the past four or five weeks as therapy sessions have moved online. He said psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers have quickly learned videoconferencing so they can stay connected with patients.
Gov. Pritzker issued an executive order in March that requires health insurance companies to cover telehealth services.
Mahmoud also suggested ways that people can stay connected as this period of social distancing is merely just physical distancing.
“Maintain interactions with your social network as much as possible,” he said, adding that video chatting and phone calls offer a more personal experience than just texting, especially when staying in touch with loved ones at nursing homes.
Feigenholtz said she experienced a hidden upside to videoconferencing this month when she held Passover Seder with her family over Zoom – calling it a “Zeder.”
“I was able to have my East Coast and Midwest family in a Seder, which would have never happened,” she said. And although she was reluctant at first, “it was such a positive experience.”
Feigenholtz also predicts that expanded telehealth access will continue past the pandemic, especially because of its benefits for rural and underserved communities.
“I don't think you're going to see the genie go back in the bottle. I think that having telehealth access is going to be the new normal,” she said.
Mental health is one of a handful of issues that state lawmakers are focusing on in anticipation for a return to the Capitol, as both chambers have divided their members into “working groups.” The Illinois House of Representatives has a working group of seven members dedicated to “mental health and addiction.”
While no plans to return to Springfield have been announced, lawmakers are currently “on call” to return at any time. They were last in session on March 5. The 2020 session is scheduled to run through May 31.
The state launched a mental health hotline called “Call4Calm.” When someone texts “talk” to 552020, they will receive a free call from a counselor at a local community health center. Spanish speakers can text “hablar” to the same number.
People can also text “unemployment,” “food” or “shelter” for assistance with those things.
Hill suggested some online resources, like joining a Facebook group or reaching out to JCFS or Tuesday’s Child, a behavioral management nonprofit in Chicago. She also said that parents should consider professional help if their child’s emotions are impairing family dynamics.
James’s organization, NAMI, can help with a wide range of mental health challenges no matter a person’s age or insurance status, she said.
James added that if feelings worsen, people can call the National Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255), their local or personal health care provider or, in the most extreme cases, 911.