‘How do I manage my anxiety about this?’: Needed now more than ever, crisis and community orgs adapt to social distancing

Anna Shvets/Pexels

While the immediate concern amid the COVID-19 pandemic is physical health, social distancing has wide-stretching impacts on mental health, employment and other resources. Due to social distancing guidelines, local service organizations have had to adjust the way they serve the community during the pandemic.


In the case of CommUnity Crisis Services, all volunteers are working remotely and only essential staff are going into the office in Iowa City. Online crisis chats have always been remote, but Ryan Dickson, crisis intervention operations coordinator, said part of his job has been managing the execution of crisis-line calls remotely.

Additionally, a group of volunteers was hired as temporary staff to tackle an increased number of Disaster Distress Helpline chats. The Crisis Services office used to receive about 60 chats a month on that helpline, but say they’ve been fielding about a 100 a day during the COVID-19 crisis, many of them concerning the virus in some way.

“The overwhelming majority of them are emotional concerns,” Dickson said. “‘How do I manage my anxiety about this?’ ‘I’m afraid to go outside.’ ‘My routine has been disrupted.’ ‘What am I going to do for income now that my job has been suspended or just outright terminated?’ So, depression and anxiety are key themes that are popping up in these chats, for sure.”

The Crisis Services workers try not to administer advice directly, but speak with individuals about techniques that may work for them. For example, to manage anxiety, Dickson recommends breathing exercises to his clients, such as square breathing, or grounding exercises like 5-4-3-2-1. Dickson also believes it’s helpful for people whose daily life has changed to establish a new routine.

“A big part of what seems to be contributing to their depression and anxiety as far as I can see, is that their normal routine has been interrupted. They’ve been separated from the things that they do daily that give them a sense of worth,” Dickson said. “They take pride in their work … they don’t have access to those things anymore. So finding a new normal, establishing a new routine, even if it’s just as simple as, ‘I’m going to get out of bed at eight o’clock every morning, I’m going to brush my teeth, I’m going to shower. I’m going to watch Netflix for one hour, I’m going to journal for another hour.’ Just whatever it is that you can do inside, just stick to a routine.”

He said people affected by depression may find it helpful to incorporate something in their routine to “engage with your values, some of the things that may have brought you joy during your normal operations.”

United Action for Youth holds a virtual art workshop via Zoom, April 3, 2020. — UAY on Facebook

United Action for Youth

Mental health resources are also available through United Action for Youth, which is using virtual support groups and activities to foster community and creativity in these troubling times.

“For 50 years, UAY has used art to connect with young people. Now more than ever, young
people need positive, non-judgmental outlets to express their anxiety, fears, and other feelings related to how COVID-19 is impacting their lives,” said UAY Development Director Mikey Hampton in a press release. “Virtual art workshops, led by UAY staff will be offered to junior high and high school students on Wednesdays and Fridays from 3:30-5pm.”

UAY is also hosting online meetings for the Pride group and Fem club, as well as guitar lessons and a weekly Dungeons and Dragons group.

UI Mobile Clinic

Another outreach group tackling the pandemic is the University of Iowa Mobile Clinic. The student organization has launched their Tele Mobile Clinic, providing free medical appointments online or over the phone, no insurance required.

“We are able to offer general health education, medication refills, discuss COVID concerns, social work appointments, and connect people with mental health counseling,” said Joyce Wahba, a UI student at the Carver College of Medicine and a Mobile Clinic executive coordinator, in an email to Little Village.

Patients can contact the Tele Mobile Clinic by calling or texting 319-535-2684.

CommUnity Food Bank

Outside of physical and mental health, service organizations are continuing to provide food and shelter amid the pandemic.

“On the end of the people needing assistance, we’ve tried to change things as little as possible,” said Sara Witry, director of services for the CommUnity Food Bank, “so we have not changed our hours, because that’s always stressful and confusing for people. It’s very hard to get that word out to everyone who might need our services.”

Their clients no longer have the option to shop the food bank the way they could before; instead, food is organized in a variety of prepackaged bags. Volunteers distribute this food at a table outside of the building. This set-up only requires five volunteers.

“With that service we are able to organize our volunteers and minimize the number of volunteers we need so that in the food bank department, there are fewer than 10 people in that area at any given time,” Witry said.

CommUnity staff prepare for Project Holiday meal distribution at CommUnity, Dec. 16, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Providing these prepackaged bags of food has required the CommUnity Food Bank to make more expensive purchases than normal, so they are seeking financial contributions to support the program.

In the previous weeks, Witry says the food bank has been experiencing a decrease in demand for assistance.

“That makes sense: people are trying to stay home and increase social distance, just like they’ve been instructed to do,” she said.

Last week, the numbers started to return to normal. On Monday, March 30, the food bank fulfilled almost exactly the same amount of requests for food as they did on Monday, March 9, when there were just eight cases of COVID-19 in Iowa and businesses and schools were generally operating as usual.

The return to normal numbers, Witry said, is due at in part to a new countywide food delivery service. This program is a collaboration of the CommUnity Food Bank, Coralville Community Food Pantry, North Liberty Community Pantry and IC Compassion. Johnson County residents in need of food can call 319-519-6165 Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and delivery requests will be routed through the appropriate pantry to meet clients’ needs and deliver food to them. The program has partnered with Johnson County SEATS and Lazy Boy Delivery to distribute the food.

Witry suspects the demand from the community will continue to grow.

“We do anticipate that as word of the delivery program goes out, we will see an increase in … overall people who are receiving service, because there are so many new people who have been laid off and are not receiving a paycheck,” she said. “There are a lot of assistance programs being discussed where they will possibly receive additional support in the coming weeks, but right now they don’t have money to pay for food.”

CommUnity is also continuing financial assistance over the phone, but some other Basic Needs services are not currently available, such as eye exams and bus vouchers. (More information about CommUnity services can be found within the COVID-19 page on their website.)

Shelter House

Shelter House in Iowa City — Johnson County’s only homeless shelter — has been forced to reevaluate and adjust their programs to abide by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Center of Disease Control and Prevention’s social-distancing guidelines. One of the biggest steps they have taken is reducing the maximum capacity for the shelter. On March 17, there were 87 residents staying at the main shelter; the new capacity is 45 people. In order to keep shelter numbers down, Shelter House worked to house 29 people in a single week.

“Our rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing staff have just worked their tails off to get folks into permanent housing much more quickly,” said Christine Ralston, director of development at Shelter House. “So we’re using typical dollars that we would use, like our HUD grants that would help support our clients through deposit and first month’s rent. And we’re just working through that very, very quickly, so we have been reaching out to landlords to see if they have unanticipated vacancies … we’re also working with those landlords to help meet their needs to have fewer vacancies.”

Beds at Shelter House, 429 Southgate Ave, Iowa City — courtesy of Shelter House

Like the COVID-19 pandemic itself, Ralston said the circumstances at Shelter House are unprecedented.

“It has never been necessary that we lower our census and shelter in the way that we’ve had to this time,” she said.

Shelter House has also moved 15 residents who were feeling sick to hotel rooms, though none of the Shelter House residents tested positive for COVID-19.

“We do have an onsite case manager for them [at the hotel] to provide the same services that they would be provided if they were here, if they were still in shelter,” Ralston explained. “And that has allowed those folks to be in isolation, but you can’t self isolate in a mass shelter. You can’t shelter in place when you don’t have a place.”

Operations in the main shelter have changed in other ways, beyond the bed capacity.

“Typically the shelter is open from evening to morning, and during the day folks are going to their jobs, they’re going out looking for jobs, but now there’s nowhere else for them to go,” Ralston said. “So we’ve kept the shelter open 24/7 [and] we have increased staffing so that way there’s always someone there to handle questions and concerns.”

Drop-in operations, such as laundry, have been suspended, though people with appointments to see case managers or employment counselors can still have their meetings.

On top of these changes, Shelter House had to postpone their annual book drive, which typically brings in about $25,000. The book drive was scheduled for March 28 and 29, but has been pushed back until July.

‘We’re all feeling the impact’

Perhaps the biggest challenge for these organizations is the fact that providing services has become more difficult just when the community needs them the most.

“It’s a desperately hard thing to know that as folks are losing income, we’re certainly likely to have more need in the community, not less need in the community at a time when we have less capacity,” Ralston said.

Despite the difficult circumstances, leaders at these organizations have found a silver lining in the people they work with, even at a distance.

“The volunteers and donors have really stepped up during this time, and we’re very grateful to both of them for everything that they’ve done,” Dickson said. “We’re all feeling the impact, but because of people like that it’s certainly going a lot smoother than it could be.”

“We’re so grateful to be in a community where so many people reach out to ask how they can help,” Witry said. “In times of disaster like [COVID-19], during the flood of 2008, in many other times, we have seen that when disasters happen so many people in our community reach out to say, ‘How can we help?’ because they know that we’re still operating. It really makes it an amazing community to be a part of and that’s really how all of these services are possible, not just at our agency but at social service agencies across Johnson County.”

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