We are all working to stay healthy and protect our loved ones from illness. That’s why we are all willing to make huge sacrifices to protect our communities from COVID-19. But in the midst of the pandemic, we must not overlook the importance of taking care of all aspects of our health, including mental health.

This is a stressful time, but there are steps we can take to protect our mental health and that of our loved ones.

Before the coronavirus consumed so much of our attention, there were worrying signs about the mental health of Americans. One in five Americans, including over 85,000 Wyomingites, experienced mental illness in prior years, and one in 25 battled serious mental illness (SMI).

In 2018 alone, 67,376 Americans died from drug overdose, and more than 48,000 Americans died from suicide. In fact, the national rate of suicide has increased by 35% since 1999. And Wyoming has the second-highest rate in the country.

Every one of these deaths was preventable, and every one of them represents an empty seat at someone’s dinner table. Experts are concerned that the coronavirus and our response will only make things worse. Federal agencies warn of a coming wave of depression, substance use, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.

Individuals who were struggling with mental health disorders before the pandemic, especially those with SMI, face new and difficult challenges. According to the president of the American Psychiatric Association, “Severe depression, little tolerance for stress and paranoid thoughts before the pandemic are all magnified in the face of this coronavirus attack.” People with compromised mental health are more likely to experience worsening mental illness due to the coronavirus crisis, “no matter what their mental illness might be.”

Social distancing is critically important for our physical safety, but it comes at a cost. Humans are social beings, and isolation is the enemy of good mental health. For people in recovery, isolation means being cut off from the community of support they depend on to stay healthy.

For individuals receiving counseling for mental or substance use disorders, social distancing means in-person counseling is either unavailable or less safe. Telehealth and virtual social connections are better than nothing, but they aren’t the same as being together.

Health care workers are not immune to stress, trauma and burnout from the rigors of being part of the response. In emergency departments, ICUs and critical care units, many are working longer hours, unsure of their own safety or that of their family members at home, as they are surrounded by more and sicker patients than in the past. The tragic death of a New York City emergency room director from suicide is a stark reminder of the difficulties providers confront.

And the general public is stressed as our lives have been turned upside down. Nearly half of us are worried about getting sick, and almost two-thirds are worried about a loved one getting sick. Survey results from the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2020 show concerns about the economy, the government’s response to the coronavirus and managing distance learning for those with children are significant sources of stress. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that nearly half of us face negative mental health impacts from the pandemic.

The good news is that there are things we can do to care for our mental health and look out for each other. We should stay informed, but avoid spending too much time consuming news about the pandemic. Talk about the fear and stress you may be experiencing, and do your best to stay socially connected.

Take care of your body by exercising, eating right and getting enough sleep. Try to get in a routine, but don’t be too harsh on yourself if things don’t go according to plan. You may find it helpful to take a few deep breaths if you start feeling anxious, and remember to cut yourself some slack if you just feel off.

If you or a loved one has a mental illness and is worried about attending therapy in person, consider asking your provider for a telehealth appointment. If you’re worried about access to medication, ask for a 90-day supply.

Nami.org has a number of valuable resources.

The NAMI HelpLine is a free, nationwide peer-support service providing information, resource referrals and support to people living with mental health conditions, their family members and caregivers, mental health providers and the public, and the public. The NAMI HelpLine can be reached At 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).

Above all, seek help if you need it. You can call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If you prefer to text, you can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting WYO to 741741.

Amanda Jones is the executive director of NAMI Wyoming.

Mark O’Brien is an addiction and recovery expert for the Rx Abuse Leadership Initiative, or RALI.

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