Local Experts Address COVID Forecasts & Staying Mentally Healthy

For its most recent rendition of CitySpeak, The Advocate assembled local health officials to discuss impacts of the coronavirus pandemic – including mental health ramifications. The forum’s panel featured Benton County Health Department Co-Directors Charlie Fautin and Danielle Brown as well as Clinical Social Worker Jana Svoboda, bringing 35 years of experience. 

Fautin said Benton County is not in “serious trouble,” though in the past two weeks, negative trends have pushed the area onto Gov. Kate Brown’s watch list for counties that fail to meet benchmarks in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic. He likened increased COVID-19 cases that are not linked to other known cases to a wildfire situation. 

The proportion of COVID-19 occurring in younger people is also on the rise, which Fautin called worrying. He said around two-thirds of new cases are occurring in younger demographics. That section of the population often works in service industries or physical labor, where the coronavirus spreads rapidly. Fautin also noted a mindset of “immortality” among the youth.  

“We thought this may happen when we went to phase two… but it took some time to take hold,” he said. “We knew that would be the case – there would be multiple incubation periods. We were saying when we went to phase two in early June that we would see the consequences of that in mid-July.” 

If the trend in youth coronavirus cases continue, Fautin expects the next month to show another increase in cases. He said the sporadic spreading of the illness could reach out to those who are more vulnerable due to underlying conditions. He also noted the danger for those in long-term care and correctional facilities – confined environments where COVID-19 jumps from those who might not show symptoms to people with weaker immunities. 

Fautin said the county health department has been working closely with Oregon State University to prepare for the fall, when a spike in coronavirus cases has been predicted. According to the most recent information, the college plans to open for in-person teaching as scheduled. However, if coronavirus cases continue to increase, Fautin said it’s possible the state will impose new restrictions on institutions and businesses. 

Many have drawn a comparison between COVID-19 and the flu. With that in mind, early predictions included the virus coming in waves, similar to the historic 1918 pandemic. But Fautin said the coronavirus is more like a common cold – a constant threat of infection is present.  

“We know that mask precautions, respiratory precautions, social distancing work,” Fautin said. “The problems that are occurring around the U.S. – and thank goodness, to a lesser extent in Oregon, but still to a worrying extent – are the result of a relaxation in those precautions. And this virus is going to take advantage of those regardless of the season. It may well get worse in the winter when we all have to be inside.” 

Turning to the mental health aspect of the pandemic, the rise in sales of alcohol and cannabis were noted as part of the response to added stress. Brown said while substance abuse caseloads aren’t increasing locally yet, she expects that to happen in the coming months and years, as addiction takes varying times to develop, and treatment isn’t often sought until some catastrophic event forces a person to change their behavior patterns. 

“We’re already struggling with addiction being a big problem just in the world,” Brown said. “When you add something that’s as stressful as the COVID emergency, people losing jobs, kids being out of school, I think we’re going to see people continue to use. They use because they’re looking for that quick fix, for that thing that’s going to immediately decrease their anxiety and manage their depression regardless of the long-term consequences.” 

Brown said there has been an increase in people coming in for new mental health services. Following an initial pause in accepting new intakes to adjust for the coronavirus outbreak, assessments are now booked for two-three weeks ahead and new people continue to request services. Brown also noted an increase in patient admissions to the psychiatric hospital.  

“I think that’s all related to the stress around the COVID emergency and people just not really knowing what to do with all the anxiety that they’re feeling,” Brown said. “Feeling like [COVID-19’s] airborne at this point, like it’s everywhere you go.” 

Svoboda spoke about coping strategies and self-care under the harrowing experience of the pandemic and the fear it spreads. She said self-care can be overlooked, and even those who aren’t directly affected the pandemic could be suffering. Small stresses can build, wearing you down over time, and Svoboda said that even grocery shopping, once a simple task, now requires a stressful risk assessment.  

Facing unrelenting stress, Svoboda said many people are relying on their standard coping mechanisms, whether good or bad, much more often to find a sense of peace. For those choosing to push their healthy habits such as exercising, that might not be an issue. But for substance abusers, the pandemic is a dangerous additional layer of stress that could lead to heavier using. 

“And that could be overeating, binge-watching TV, any kind of substance – maybe armchair shopping,” Svoboda said.  

The best coping skills Svoboda can offer are the ones that people know work for them, she said. For some people that could be as simple as having healthy life skills and habits, eating right and exercising, getting plenty of rest. For others, life can be a moment-to-moment struggle that requires more intense support methods as well as physiological calming techniques.  

Svoboda suggested adding a little novelty to your life, lightening things up and getting another perspective in a time when everything seems to be the same endless slog day in and day out. Do something different, and try to have a laugh while you’re at it. She also said awe and a sense of deep meaning can be soothing, mentioning her own experience after a recent bad day. 

“I went to the darkest place I could find within 20 miles and looked at the comet,” Svoboda said. “And for just a little while, our planet and our problems seemed so trivial and so unimportant.”  

By Cody Mann