During a recent appointment, the voice speaking to me through my cell phone was intelligent, high pitched, and desperate.
“I just can’t stop thinking about how my husband, Caldwell, died suddenly at age 46," the voice said. "He put funds aside to care for the kids and me, but he was in good health, so we did not expect sudden death. I am so lonely now during this quiet time that I miss him desperately."
She became quiet, and I wondered about the expression on her face. Joan and I were using the phone instead of sitting in my offices, as we have done each week this year.
Joan's therapy and some needed medication have prevented her from slipping into a dysfunctional depression over her husband’s suicide. However, therapy and medication cannot replenish the emotional cavern in her stomach. She will need to find a way to reach out to others to make a connection that offers her alternatives for her seemingly bleak future.
Joan is joined by many who feel the impact of our current world illness on our collective emotional, social and physical health. A global, deadly virus that has killed thousands of our citizens brings a rampant danger of an emotional and physical illness that creeps slowly, silently placing people on a path to social loneliness.
Perhaps you have never considered social loneliness as a legitimate illness, but think again.
Research informs us that social isolation is associated with earlier death and higher incidences of emotional and physical illness than feeling connected to others.
To prevent a separate pandemic of mental illness, we must address the need to connect with others.
Like other large-scale disasters, notably the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack, the coronavirus disaster increases depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and several other mental and behavioral disorders.
Domestic violence, loneliness, anxiety, depression and child abuse increase during sustained periods of enforced closeness. For example, one out of 10 adults in New York City showed signs of emotional disorders, like depression and anxiety, in the months following the 2001 attack. To mitigate this concern, I have shifted to telehealth, seeing individuals, couples, and families using online and keeping phone meetings for up to 20 hours per week.
Unless we all work to prevent further emotional illness, we can expect increases in emotional disturbance. Here are four daily steps to remain healthy:
- Use digital technologies to bridge the social distance that creates loneliness. Daily online activities substitute for customary ways of meeting in person. Many businesses, churches, and friendship groups offer video connections for those sheltered at home. These safe environments ensure that we receive daily outreach during the workweek.
- Outreach by voice and/or video is superior to email and text messaging. Check-ins provide regular contact, but citizens who cannot use technology require using screens to combat loneliness, anxiety, and clinical depression. Behavior specialists need to be aware that domestic violence and child abuse will increase with prolonged cohabitation at home, which is why need safe havens and treatment options for those at risk.
- Professional mental health practitioners need to deliver effective prevention, diagnosis and treatment for all in need. Telemedicine mental health visits, group visits, and delivery of care via technology platforms will be important components of stepped care for both acute crisis management and more routine communication and support. Medicare has already expanded coverage of telemental health services to include mental health counseling and virtual visits with psychologists and social workers for the vulnerable 60 and over group.
Establishing online skills allows us to emerge from this terrifying pandemic with lessons for the future. Do yourself a favor, and reach out and touch someone you love.
To Consider: What am I learning about myself during this disaster that can impact my future in a constructive way? Will I take myself seriously?
To Do: Simple self-care steps can be done daily. Plan a daily walk in a safe location. Use deep breathing to relax if life seems frightening.
ED. NOTE: Dr. Coche practices clinical psychology in Stone Harbor and Philadelphia. She invites responses through her website, www.cochecenter.com.