The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, April 01, 2020 1:00 am

Experts: Mental health help available

Say it's normal to feel anxious amid virus pandemic


Fort Wayne-area residents feeling distressed because of the COVID-19 epidemic and steps being taken to reduce its spread shouldn't be afraid to seek help, mental health professionals say.

During an Allen County Department of Health virtual news conference Tuesday, the professionals reported it's not just residents' physical health that's being affected by the new coronavirus.

The experts are seeing an increase in people feeling emotionally unwell, including some needing to be hospitalized.

Allen County on Tuesday reported six new confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, and an additional death. That makes a total of 36 cases and two deaths in the county.

“I can say on my in-patient unit, I've personally seen an increase in people who are stressed,” said Dr. Matthew Runyan of Parkview Behavioral Health. 

Often, he said, a preexisting condition – such as depression and suicidal tendencies, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia – is triggered or worsened by the additional stress. But some people may develop symptoms for the first time.

Dr. Deborah McMahan, Allen County health commissioner, said feeling some degree of fear or anxiety during the current situation is normal. It's triggered by biological processes, not personal weakness, she said.

“Asking people not to be fearful or anxious is just impossible at this point,” she said, pointing out that under normal circumstances about 20% of people suffer from anxiety.

The experts said many therapeutic methods can help, including video chats instead of in-person visits.

“I think we have to realize that a lot of this is situational,” said H. Siquilla Liebetrau of The Bowen Center, Fort Wayne.

People “can get quick treatment ... and get better quickly,” she said.

The experts also provided tips on what people can do themselves to cope with fears and the need for new routines.

To meet social needs interrupted by social distancing, Liebetrau said, people can call others on the phone, video chat and join groups online for support or to share interests.

People also should pay attention to their physical health by creating daily routines, getting enough and regular hours of sleep, eating healthier foods, exercising indoors or outdoors and staying away from too much alcohol and caffeine.

She also urged meditation or prayer, listening to music and limiting exposure to distressing news on television and social media.

Good indicators that professional help might be needed include not sleeping or anxious feelings that interfere with  day-to-day functioning, such as the ability to work or care for family or self,  Runyan said.

Experts said it's often difficult for people under stress to ask for help, so it can be helpful for others to suggest doing something to ease the stress or asking if a person just wants to talk.

McMahan said biological processes connected to fear and anxiety can kick in even before people are consciously aware. The biological reactions are fueled by uncertainty and inconsistent information, which are hallmarks of the COVID-19 situation, she said.

“Uncertainty is something we don't do very well with,” Mahan said.

Adults may not be the only people feeling stressed and anxious about COVID-19.

Children, too, might develop symptoms, said H. Siquilla Liebetrau of The Bowen Center.

It's not unexpected for them to act younger than they usually do or act out, she said.

She recommends developing and sticking to a new routine, which can give children a sense of safety and security, and focusing on what they can do to stay safe and healthy instead of dwelling on “what-ifs” that can fuel anxiety.

Among her other tips:

+ Be careful about adult conversations about the crisis around children, but answer their questions in a direct, age-appropriate way.

+ Ask how children are feeling, knowing they don't have the experience or coping skills of adults and often “don't have the words to explain what is going on inside them.”

+ Remind them that there are many people who will help to keep them safe.

+ Provide a physical “safe zone” where they can go to calm down and relax.

+ Don't neglect providing healthy meals and calm time for sleep.


Sign up for our daily headlines newsletter

Top headlines are sent daily