Health officials discuss coping with stress as you practice social distancing

The MyChart app is one of the ways Mercy Medical in Cedar Rapids conducts its video visits. The hospital also does video visits with patients through FaceTime or Skype. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

It’s been almost a month since the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Iowa, and health experts are reminding individuals about the importance of focusing on mental health during the pandemic.

School and business closures, working from home, disruption to a daily routine and staying inside are some of the things Iowans are having to adapt to. And social distancing will likely remain necessary for the foreseeable future — as of Friday, April 3, there are nearly 700 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Iowa, and Linn County has more than any another county, with 118 of its residents testing positive for the virus.

Mental health can be easy to overlook in times of stress, but it “remains critically important to our well-being, more so now than maybe any other time in our lives,” said Drew Martel, crisis services director at Foundation 2. Martel was one of the speakers during Linn County Public Health’s press conference on Thursday.

“The stress caused by a global pandemic, social distancing and very painful economic realities that have hit many of us hard, combined with the constant uncertainty and the fact that good news can be awfully hard to come by, makes for an incredibly traumatic period for most of us,” Martel said.

“Stress, uncertainty and anxiety can be found in abundance. Physical distancing is something none of us have experienced to the extent that is currently in place.”

Martel suggested some actions and resources for people, encouraging them to be proactive with their mental health needs.

• Try to keep to routines or create new ones.
• Sleep and diet remain critically important to our physical and mental health.
• Stay at home but also try to stay socially connected. Encourage and support your kids to do the same. Phone calls and chats with friends, family and coworkers is incredibly important to our well-being.
• Pay attention to what your body and mind is telling you. Don’t ignore how you feel.
• Take time each day to turn off the news and electronics and step outside.
• Show patience to kids. Check in with them regularly and let them vent.
• Reach out for support if you need it. Seeking professional help is a sign of strength.

Foundation 2 continues to operate its 24/7 crisis line at 319-362-2174. The nonprofit’s mobile crisis outreach has suspended all in-person meetings, but there is a video conference option. Those interested in receiving services via video can call the same phone number.

Martel also highlighted how Abbe Mental Health Center, UnityPoint Health and Mercy Medical Center also have mental health professionals available to talk.

At Thursday’s press conference, Dr. Dustin Arnold of UnityPoint Health called telemedicine a “milestone in health care.” He also shared how UnityPoint Health clinics now have a virtual waiting room where patients can communicate with the clinic from the parking lot and don’t have to sit in the waiting room inside the building.

“Mental health is vital, especially during this stressful time,” Arnold said. “Abbe Mental Health Center does have telehealth and virtual appointments available through contacting them and they are maintaining a service line that’s critical to the continuum of health care.”

In an interview last week with Little Village, Dr. Tim Sagers of Mercy Medical Center shared how telemedicine — which includes video visits — has been an “invaluable tool” during the pandemic, both for physical health (screening patients for COVID-19) and for mental health.

“I’ve said this when I’ve spoken at conferences and other things: the solutions for the American health care or mental health care crisis or the shortcomings we have in mental health care in this country — it will be answered by telemedicine. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Sagers told Little Village.

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