Dr. Christine Somervill, director of programs for NAMI Cook County North Suburban

Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

Everyone who is feeling out-of-sorts, apprehensive, uncertain about the future because of  the Coronavirus may be relieved to know that is not so unusual.

“It’s normal for mental health symptoms to be exacerbated by a time of stress and crisis. And I think it’s really important to acknowledge that,” said Dr. Adia Gooden, director of community programs and outcome measurement at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

Dr. Gooden joined Dr. Christine Somervill, director of programs for NAMI Cook County North Suburban, at a City of Evanston Facebook Live Q&A session on April 20 that focused on mental health.

Both serve on the Coronavirus Task Force which Evanston Mayor Stephen Hagerty established to bring together representatives from various sectors of the City to coordinate Evanston’s response to the virus.

Mayor Hagerty served as moderator of the April 20 Q&A session, noting the growing significance of mental health as the crisis goes on.

The mayor has raised concern about the City’s mental health needs during so-called normal times.

“And here we are facing a crisis of global proportions,” he said, leading off the session, “and I know that anxiety is high, stress is high,” he said.

One question that frequently comes up, he said, is how one takes care of one’s self at a time when so many restrictions are in place on activities.

Self-care becomes an important issue during a time like this, and getting proper rest is part of “the core of self-care,” Dr. Gooden said. 

For most adults, that means seven to eight hours of sleep, “and kids and teenagers need even more than that, maybe nine to ten hours,” she said. “That [proper res] boosts our immune system, which we really need right now. It allows our system to sort of regulate and calm down and relax, so prioritizing getting enough sleep,” is important. “So is making sure you are eating regularly and eating foods that are nourishing to the body.”

Limiting the amount of caffeine and alcohol can make sense during this period, too, she said, “because those things can sort of shift our moods in ways that can be unhelpful and exacerbate anxiety or depression.”

Taking time for oneself is another good practice, she said. “So if you are in a house with your whole family, and it’s really hard to get space, maybe consider taking a walk by yourself, or if you have a car, sitting in the car.”

Dr. Somervill said establishing a daily routine is important, too.

“Just making your bed in the morning, putting on clothes that you would put on if you were going outside — make yourself feel like you’re living a normal life,” she suggested.

“If you’re working from home, it’s important to create structure,” she said. “Dedicate some space in your home to do that. Make sure you schedule breaks so that you get up and move around and have lunch. Maybe connect with coworkers, via whatever tools you have.

“Also, you might consider not spending too much time talking about Covid-19 because, you know, I think we’re all consuming that information. And it’s important that we’re consuming reliable information and that we don’t get overwhelmed.”

Dr. Gooden spoke about people making use of their “self-agency” function, as they go about their day.

“In fact you should be doing them with purpose and intentionality – I would say get up and lay out your day,” she said. “Know that you’re going to have certain times when you’re going to do certain things that will work for you.”

Along with establishing a daily routine, she said, “I think it’s can be helpful to sort of shrink the window when you start thinking about what’s going to happen six months from now, or eight months from now. That [thinking of the far-off future] is when we start to get more overwhelmed, and can start to catastrophize, or think about the worst possible outcome. But if you sort of shrink it down and say, ‘Okay, what’s going to happen the next day or two, or maybe even the next month,’ but sort of shortening everything. The more anxious and overwhelmed and out-of-control you feel, the shorter your timeline should be.”

If thoughts start rolling out worst-case scenarios, “bringing it back and trying to let go of those thoughts and sort of check in with yourself: How do you feel now? Do you feel healthy in this moment, can you breathe in at this moment’ is one technique you might use.

People who start to feel anxious and overwhelmed, for example, at a grocery store, might do “a grounding technique that we call ‘noticing,” she said, taking note of five things in your immediate environment “to get your mind to settle into the present moment.”

Connecting resources to people “is harder now these times because we’re at home and can’t go out and look for them,” Dr. Somervill noted.

Earlier this month, Mayor Hagerty notes, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced a Call-4-Calm program – a free emotional support text line where people can speak with a mental health professional. Any Illinois resident with a mobile phone can opt in by texting “TALK” to 552020 or texting “HABLAR” for service in Spanish to the same number.

Locally, more and more therapy practices are providing teletherapy options in response to the shelter-at-home directive, said Dr. Gooden. “And so that may be a really helpful resource, to learn new coping strategies for depression. “Depression can cause us to self-isolate, [which] can exacerbate depression,” she said, “and we have to sort of make more of an effort to reach out more than we might normally, because we don’t have the normal ways of interacting that we usually have.”

For that matter, said Dr. Somervill, “during these difficult times, make sure you have the contact information, or the phone numbers and email addresses of people who are maybe in your close social circle ,” as well as “people you don’t talk to often, or haven’t seen for a while. 

“Reach out to them,” she suggested, “because one of the things that’s really helpful to an individual who may be struggling is to do something that you know is helping another individual, so caring for other people, while you need it yourself, is a really good strategy.”

And also “ask for help when you need it,” she said. “I think part of the thing that people struggle with sometimes is they feel like they’re all alone … and they should be able to handle things and don’t ask for help when they need it.

“Just share that feeling with people that you really trust,” she urged. “Take that chance, open up, be vulnerable and let the people who care for you help you in that way.”

The Q&A in its entirety is available at cityofevanston.org/covid19.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.