Managing Anxiety and Protecting the Vulnerable in the Midst of a Pandemic

Who could have predicted last Thanksgiving how fundamentally different our lives would become in the months ahead? The way we work, shop, and socialize have all changed dramatically, as have the ways in which healthcare providers serve our patients.

Ann Sullivan, MD

Ann Sullivan, MD
Commissioner
NYS Office of Mental Health (OMH)

Even before the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was felt, we at the NYS Office of Mental Health knew we would have to take action on several different fronts. Our first priority was to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus for our patients and staff in 23 psychiatric centers across the state. This was especially important because many of our patients struggle with co-occurring disorders, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and diabetes, putting them at higher risk from the virus.

We also recognized the need to support to our community providers, to ensure they have the resources to reduce risks of exposure and continue to provide treatment and services to their clients.

But as the Coronavirus spread, interrupting daily routines and requiring social isolation, we quickly realized that many New Yorkers would experience increased anxiety, depression and stress, and we would need to help them cope with these feelings.

Thanks to the support and leadership of Governor Cuomo, OMH was able to quickly establish the Emotional Support Helpline (1-844-863-9314) to assist New Yorkers who are overwhelmed by the anxiety and loss caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

The emotional toll of a pandemic cannot be overstated. Many of us have lost family, friends and colleagues. Lives are disrupted; schools, businesses and recreational outlets are closed, and many people are facing severe financial difficulties. These losses as well as the need to isolate ourselves from others, can have a significant impact on our emotional state.

OMH implemented the Emotional Support Helpline on March 25, and as of May 6, more than 11,000 New Yorkers had called. Helpline volunteers have been trained to help people cope with the typical stress reactions brought on by the COVID-19 emergency and can provide tips on managing anxiety, dealing with loss and strengthening coping skills. Helpline volunteers can also provide referrals for services, including mental health services.

The Helpline is accessible to all New Yorkers, including non-English speaking individuals and individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. It is currently operating from 8AM-10PM, 7 days a week.

Callers to the Helpline come from all walks of life and every region of the State. There is also a dedicated line for healthcare workers. We are there for you and welcome anyone to call!

One caller, an older adult, was depressed she had not been able to attend church services or Bible study. A volunteer found a church conducting Bible study by phone. Another caller, whose husband is a physician, was experiencing intense anxiety because she worried that her husband would be exposed to the virus while doing his job. Although still fearful, she said she felt much better after talking to a volunteer.

One young man, a senior in high school, was upset that he would miss out on the graduation ceremonies and parties, and also worried that he wouldn’t be able to work and save money for college over the summer.

And a woman who had been having great difficulty sleeping at night felt much better, learned some ways to help her sleep and was even able to laugh by the end of her call. She thanked the volunteer by saying “this interaction with a stranger really shows the beauty of human connection.”

All these people, and many more, received the assistance they needed from a Helpline volunteer. But of course, the Helpline should NOT be used by people experiencing an urgent medical issue, or who are in crisis. In those instances, they should call 911 immediately. Anyone with thoughts of self-injury or suicide are urged to call 800-273-8255 or you text “Got5” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

In addition, OMH has also developed and posted to our website, guidelines on managing anxiety. The guidelines offer advice on practicing self-care, understanding the difference between typical and atypical stress, and staying well-informed while avoiding information overload and unreliable news sources. In addition to general advice for the public, the guidelines also offer specific recommendations for:

  • people receiving mental health services,
  • mental health providers,
  • caregivers of older adults and
  • parents, including parents of children with preexisting anxiety disorders.

Perhaps the most important message to caregivers, healthcare workers and parents who are trying to navigate these stressful times, it is critically important that you take the time to monitor and manage your own anxiety levels. Please visit the OMH website to learn how you can safeguard your mental health, just as you’re taking steps to protect your physical health.

Protecting our Patients, Staff and Partners

As mentioned earlier, our first priority in addressing the COVID-19 crisis was to reduce the risk of exposure in our facilities. To do so we implemented numerous measures, including enhanced screening for all admissions, recommended cleaning and disinfection standards, and limiting routine interactions between staff and patients to those that could be carried out while maintaining social distancing.

We also made the decision to restrict visitors to adults in our psychiatric centers and limit visits to children’s facilities to only those that are essential to the care and wellbeing of the patient. This was a difficult decision to reach because I know the important role social interaction plays in the recovery process. To compensate, we tried to utilize technology as much as possible to provide “remote visitation.”

To support our community providers, we waived certain regulations governing telehealth services, streamlining the approval process to quickly allow more healthcare providers to utilize the practice for the duration of the of the COVID-19 emergency. This will help ensure their patients will receive the care they need while they are quarantined or isolating themselves to prevent the spread of the virus.

We also increased flexibility on State aid, allowing our local partners to pay for unplanned and unbudgeted costs related to the COVID-19 virus, including overtime costs and other personnel costs, increased infection control costs and the costs of setting up telehealth systems for their practitioners. The regulatory changes also include extending deadlines on certain financial reporting requirements.

A full list of the program guidance we provided to our community partners can be found on our COVID-19 Resource Page.

Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic is a disaster that has challenged us like no other catastrophic event. Yet, as Governor Cuomo has said, the knowledge we have gained through this crisis gives us the opportunity to come back “stronger and better” with improvements in healthcare, emergency preparedness, effective use of technology and an even stronger sense of community. For now, though, let’s all focus on staying safe and preventing the spread of the virus. Wear a mask whenever necessary, wash your hands often, stay home as much as you can and definitely if you feel sick.

Be safe and well!!

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