Managing mental health

Many cope with new anxieties while others contend with long-term illness mid-pandemic

"It is OK not to be OK." That's a saying in the mental health field, according to Andy Wade of Chicago, the executive director of NAMI Illinois. NAMI stands for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy-oriented nonprofit.

It's a saying he has taken to heart recently, after noticing one of his own children was isolating herself and seemed distant. His inclination was to tell her to get up and go outside, to spring into action and shake the malaise. Instead, he asked her directly to share her feelings. Then he actively listened. And he's tried to lead by example when it comes to healthy coping mechanisms.

"Children pick up adult worries far more than adults believe that they do." Wade said parents should model calmness and remind their children they have gotten through tough times before.

"What's happening with COVID-19 is suddenly you have this global event that is touching literally everybody and it's anxiety-producing," said Wade. Various entities, including the state, have responded with resources for those in need of support. Still, there will be lasting mental health effects.

Call for help

The state has initiated a hotline number for those with mental health issues that haven't reached the point of suicidal ideation. If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide or harm, the state suggests calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Illinois' "Call4Calm" allows residents to text "talk" to 552020 to be connected with a mental health professional. Memorial Health System in Springfield is one of the providers.

Diana Knaebe is the system administrator for Memorial Behavioral Health. Springfield-area residents can also call Memorial's emotional-support line directly: 217-588-5509, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. Knaebe said the line has received more than 700 calls since it began in mid-March. There has been a range of callers, from Memorial employees and community members expressing their concerns and worries, to those seeking guidance for "pretty serious situations."

At times calls have led to intervention by DCFS and other authorities. The calls provide connection to appropriate resources, said Knaebe. An assessment is done of whether callers could benefit from ongoing therapy and counseling as well as support groups. "And so we're making those connections," she said.

She says over time, the volume of calls hasn't lessened, "In fact, I think what's happening is they're getting more serious."

How to cope

Knaebe, who served as director of the Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health before coming to Memorial earlier in the year, said it's normal to be dealing with unwanted feelings right now.

"I think initially we saw a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety. Now, I think it's moving into frustration. The fears and worries are really about what is the new normal going to be," she said. Financial pressure. Loneliness. Dreading scarcity and getting sick. All of these factors can also worsen addiction and other abusive behaviors.

Some basic steps to cope, per Knaebe and other health experts: Limit exposure to the news – seek reliable, accurate information, but don't watch cable news all day long. Establish and maintain a scheduled routine. Exercise. Eat healthy. Factor in time to relax. And find ways to connect with others. Knaebe notes there are many creative ways people are participating in virtual tours, classes and hangouts.

For those who need additional help, there are many options. Support groups and counseling have largely shifted online.

"People who have been working through mental health issues for years are finding that they might have a resilience that other people are now having to learn," said Wade. "I think people who have some history addressing mental health issues in their own lives can be very helpful to other people."

Meanwhile, some who have long-term mental health issues are more susceptible to physical illness as well. Some are in group homes, which can make them particularly vulnerable to infection.

Wade said once life gets back to some semblance of normalcy, there will still be increased focus needed to address mental health. "I think the real important consideration is that many times when you've gone through trauma, those effects last for years." While that trauma is clearly a factor for those on the front lines and others dealing with distress, it can trickle down too.

"The biggest single predictor of adult mental illness is early childhood trauma. This is a traumatic situation that is extended, so you can expect that there will be needs that are showing up for quite some time," he said. "We are really thinking this is a long haul, fundamental shift."

You can contact Rachel Otwell at

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