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Coping with COVID-19 

Finding healing in helping while navigating isolation and anxiety behind the Redwood Curtain

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The novel coronavirus has had a sudden and dramatic impact on our public and private lives, and we are entering a period of real uncertainty about what the future holds. The statewide shelter-in-place order we've been given is unprecedented but it is a necessary response to an emergency situation. Still, it can be disorienting to feel at the mercy of things bigger than ourselves, it can feel overwhelming and even traumatizing.

Right now, we are participants in a once-in-a-generation event that will likely change so many things we've previously been able to take for granted. It can be hard to realize that one of those things is the belief that tomorrow will be like today. It is also hard to even begin to reckon with the looming financial problems that will be caused by the impact of the coronavirus on people's jobs and economic security. It also seems hard to believe that in the foreseeable future we might have to come to terms with the loss of many people in our community to a disease that was not even known three months ago. That is an experience many people around the world are having right now, even if it has not impacted us here behind the Redwood Curtain in this way yet.

When calling for a unified response to the crisis of the Great Depression, the great President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, "The only thing we have to fear ... is fear itself." As a society, we are again in a situation where unreasoned responses can interfere with the steps needed to move us past an emerging crisis. Fortunately, we now know a lot about the correct public health measures necessary to maximize each person's protection from the coronavirus, and there is a lot of factual information available to provide help and guidance in this challenging time.

From a mental health perspective, the benefit of having a fact-based understanding of the coronavirus is that it can truly help a person understand what they can control and what they can't. If something is in your control, it makes sense to put whatever effort you can into your response so things come out your way. If something is not in your control, it makes sense to not worry about it too much, if that is possible. People buying a year's worth of toilet paper or hand sanitizer represents an effort to take control of an unpredictable future. This is actually an expected response from people who want to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. At the same time, a perspective from a slightly higher vantage point reveals that our community probably won't run out of toilet paper if everyone just keeps buying it as they need it, just as they always have. We are all in this together and we will work through it, together.

Many people are responding to this emerging public health emergency with high levels of anxiety. The folks I know who seem to be the most anxious about the coronavirus are those watching the most television news about it or who are obsessively following breaking news on social media. For what it is worth, the news reporting about bad things happening far away overshadows the less bad things happening nearby. In Humboldt County, as of March 24, we have had five local COVID-19 cases, though this number should be expected to gradually rise as testing expands to identify more people who have the virus. We all also have the benefit of being somewhat isolated behind the Redwood Curtain, and the strong steps being taken in more urban areas of California will likely slow the spread of the virus to more isolated rural counties. So if the media is making you anxious about the coronavirus, it is OK to unplug from it, and look to access more balanced and reputable information from sources that don't want to reduce everything to a terrifying sound bite. To find out the current status of the coronavirus response in Humboldt County, log on to the Public Health website, at www.humboldtgov.org/2018/Humboldt-Health-Alert. The fact that there has not yet been an incident of coronavirus caused mortality in Humboldt County is not a reason for complacency but it is an indication that, if we take the correct steps now, we can limit this virus' impact as it continues to spread.

Going forward, the best measures we can take to protect ourselves and our families are public health measures. By practicing steps like hand washing, social distancing and self-isolating, we are protecting vulnerable members of our community and being contributing members of our broader society. We are "flattening the curve" to help make the eventual occurrence of the coronavirus more manageable by our local medical resources. The public health measures of social distancing and self-isolating can understandably produce anxiety for some people. While it is important to limit the possible spread of the coronavirus by maintaining physical distancing, this doesn't mean giving up social contact. Keep in good touch with family and friends, and reach out to contact vulnerable neighbors who might have fewer social supports. One of the recognized ways of treating negative mental health symptoms is to do something good for someone else. If you are feeling depressed or anxious about the coronavirus, reach out and ask someone else what you can do to help them. You will probably end up feeling better.

For housebound children and teens, it helps to maintain as much consistency and structure as possible. Adults should model coping and calmness, and encourage resilient and creative responses to this "new normal." Communicate that this is a once-in-a-lifetime event and it is an experience that is being globally shared right now. This is a moment to teach the values of shared responsibility and shared sacrifice — lessons that will prove valuable as we all grow together into a world that will be forever changed by this pandemic.

There are tremendous sacrifices being asked for and given right now in our community. All those on the front lines, including the nurses and doctors in the emergency rooms, all the checkers at our grocery stores, all the restaurant workers going without income and all the public-facing workers continuing to show up to keep essential programs open, deserve acknowledgment and praise for their service and sacrifice. Community Mental Health operations are also continuing, despite the limitations imposed by social distancing, and if community members need to access services, the first step is to call your established local providers or the Humboldt County 24-hour Mental Health Crisis Line at 445-7715.

Mark Lamers is a clinical psychologist who works for the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services and prefers he/him pronouns. He has lived with his family in Eureka for 10 years. His interest in epidemiology started when he was treated for exposure to the bubonic plague at the age of 14.

Editor's note: This is one of three columns this week looking at how to maintain wellness for you and your family while shelter in place. Find the other parts here and here.

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About The Author

Mark Lamers

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