Coronavirus and mental health: Anxieties spike amid Bay Area’s isolation
Derek Cheng said managing the anxieties of the unknown amid the coronavirus crisis have proven difficult.

In the few hours before his daughters wake up, Derek Cheng anxiously tries to get ahead on the Slack messages, meetings and work he needs to tackle that day.

Now having to “shelter in place” at his home in Santa Clara, the 48-year-old software marketing director is balancing homeschooling and his family’s schedule with fulfilling daily responsibilities. It’s taking a toll on his mental health.

“We don’t know when we’ll get back to normal,” Cheng said. “Not having even an idea, whether it’s a month, two months or until summer is over — that stress is incredibly daunting.”

The uncertainties the coronavirus crisis has brought to Silicon Valley and the world is daunting. With more than 260 confirmed cases in Santa Clara County and more than 550 cases across the Bay Area, many residents are wondering how many more people will be infected, how they can get tested and how they’ll weather the negative economic and personal impacts in the months to come.

Feelings of helplessness and anxiety are to be expected, San Jose clinical psychologist Beverly Floresca told San José Spotlight.

“It’s a lot of uncertainty, and things have been changing so quickly. With uncertainty comes anxiety, and anxiety likes to fill in the blanks,” said Floresca, a member of the Santa Clara County Psychological Association. “Now that everyone has to self-quarantine, are they going to start feeling depressed and who’s there for them? Who’s their support? I worry about that.”

In an effort to help her clients safely cope, Floresca has set up a HIPPA-compliant Zoom account and is offering online “telehealth” sessions while self-quarantining. But if residents aren’t covered for those services or don’t seek out mental health care in the first place, many will have to deal with their own thoughts, feelings and emotions while isolated at home.

For now, Cheng has found solace and a sense of control in fundraising for a local food bank, ordering from neighborhood restaurants and buying a new Ninja coffee maker complete with frothing capabilities, which he called an act of self care.

“At least it’s something,” he said. “I can’t go develop a cure, but I can try and help locally. It’s just finding our areas where you can make local choices.”

What to do for help

Kathy Forward, executive director for NAMI Santa Clara County, which provides mental health support, education and advocacy, said a sense of panic can cause people to set aside their mental health, especially when basic needs – food, shelter and, yes, toilet paper – are being threatened.

Before the coronavirus news started ramping up, NAMI’s resource phone line received around two or three calls or emails an hour. Now, Forward said, it’s closer to one.

“Interestingly enough, the calls don’t seem to be pouring in. I think people are in a state of panic about what to do,” Forward said. “The people I’m talking to — they’re just trying to figure out what this means, do they have a job to go back to and how are they going to make it? Because of the shock of it all, I think people are going to start calling when things settle down a little bit.”

While isolating at home, Forward and Floresca recommend doing the following to help alleviate tension and anxiety:

  • Prioritize sleep
  • Exercise, either outdoors or indoors
  • Stay connected to people, over the phone and virtually
  • Seek out peer organizations and talk lines
  • Practice breathing techniques

Sarah Hicks has opted to write.

Hicks, an orchestra conductor with an international career, is now facing the prospects of months without work. So, the San Franciscan and breadwinner in her family has started a “Coronavirus Diary” to document her experiences and emotions during the outbreak.

“It’s March 16 and everything is just nuts,” Hicks’ first entry read. “At this point I’m not working for the next month, and it’s most likely that will extend for many more weeks, if not months. Conducting might seem like a glamorous career but basically I’m part of the gig economy – I don’t get paid unless I perform. Like a lot of people out there, I’m scared.”

Sarah Hicks is an international conductor who is now facing months of unemployment.

Hicks was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, panic disorder and bipolar disorder. She’s found a balance of medication and meditates often, focusing on something simple in her home like a stain on a rug or the color of a pen.

“I know that sounds silly, but that just draws you into the fact that that’s what exists right now and holding on to that feeling of at least being grounded for that moment,” Hicks said. “If I can have those moments every day, it builds my confidence that I can keep having those moments – even if the world has gone completely haywire.”

When she’s not working in a room with three, human-sized bookcases full of scores and music, she said she also tries to take walks and connect with friends via FaceTime Happy Hour.

Even for those whose livelihoods aren’t immediately impacted, anxieties are still raging while stuck at home.

Chloe Meyere, a former spokesperson for San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo who now works in tech, said her anxiety spiked after a few weeks of working from home. Meyere said she’s one of the lucky ones — she isn’t losing her job or a paycheck — but the 24-year-old said that duality of anxiety and security makes her feel like she’s not “allowed” to struggle mentally.

“Part of the whole anxiety thing is feeling really bad about feeling bad. I’m going to be OK, but I still feel anxious,” said Meyere, who was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder while attending the University of Oregon. “It panics me what’s going to happen to people. That shouldn’t be my burden to bear, but it feels like it is because I’m so lucky to have resources and a home.”

Her coping mechanisms have included financially supporting local businesses like Campbell chocolatier Snake & Butterfly and Hannah’s Coffee in San Jose, but her main source of relief has come from her phone.

Whether watching creative videos, live streaming friends’ monologues or video conferences featuring messy living rooms and children, she said sharing experiences, memories and feelings is vital in this time of isolation.

“(Social media’s) actually been a godsend, to be honest,” Meyere said. “It’s easy to connect with people and it makes you feel like we’re doing this together. There’s a comfort to that — there’s something communal about seeing that other people have a lot going on, too.”

Forward agreed. Sharing that sense of solidarity on social media is a silver lining to coronavirus’ impacts, the mental health expert said.

“People might be more aware of mental health and that they have it as well,” Forward said. “This might bring mental health to the forefront and get rid of a lot of the stigma that exists in the judgment and misunderstandings about other people.”

Along with reducing stigma, access is growing as more therapists have started offering telehealth services.

That’s a big step, she said, since most clients are offered a short list of local therapists covered by insurance — and an even shorter list of those taking new patients.

“If you’re willing to get help and then you can’t get it, a lot of people just say forget it and give up,” she said. “After all of this is over, my hope is that people will be more compassionate and sensitive to the fact that we are understaffed and underserved in a lot of areas around mental health and to start thinking that your physical and mental health go hand in hand.”

Where to get help

  • Santa Clara County Suicide & Crisis Hotline: 1 (855) 278-4204
  • Mental Health Call Center: 1 (800) 704-0900 (on-call)
  • Substance Use Services: 1 (800) 488-9919
  • NAMI Warmline Help Desk Telephone: 1-408-453-0400 (option 1)
  • Bill Wilson Center Youth and Family Mental Health Services: (408) 243-0222
  • Behavioral Health Services: sccgov.org/sites/bhd/gethelp
  • NAMI: namisantaclara.org
  • 7 Cups – Online Therapy & Free Counseling: 7cups.com

Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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