When it comes to our mental and emotional health, state officials and medical experts warned today that Washingtonians are about to enter the toughest phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are headed into the disillusionment phase,” Dr. Kira Mauseth, co-lead of the Washington State Department of Health’s behavioral health strike team, explained during a press conference hosted by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday, Sept. 17.
The disillusionment phase, marked by things like forgetfulness, anger, distraction, depression and anxiety, typically occurs six to nine months after the onset of a disaster or major crisis, Mauseth said.
“You may have noticed you are more forgetful than normal, or have trouble tracking details,” she said. “Maybe you’re more distracted or have trouble focusing. … Maybe you’ve noticed people are more quick to anger. People are more keyed up right now.”
All of those responses are a normal response to a pandemic that has lasted more than six months, Mauseth said.
“Six to nine months post disaster is typically the hardest for people. We struggle with what our ‘new normal’ is going to look like,” she said, adding that the struggle most Washingtonians will likely feel over the next few months is normal and expected. “It is part of the common experience. Not a single brain is immune to that.”
Some people may experience the disillusionment phase more severely than others, however, warned Mauseth. Many may be self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol.
“Keep an eye out for friends and family and folks who may need a little more help,” she said.
Mario Parades, executive director of the Consejo Counseling and Referral Service in Seattle, added to the conversation surrounding mental health and the pandemic, saying every region in Washington has help for those experiencing depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
The pandemic, combined with a national outcry over racial injustice and the recent wildfires burning throughout the West and accompanying smoke and hazardous air quality are causing extraordinary amounts of stress, Parades said.
“(The COVID-19 pandemic) has brought many challenges. Children are spending more time at home, on the computer … parents are having to be teachers and parents at the same time. These things all bring stress.”
Parades added that his counseling and referral service has noticed an uptick in domestic violence and substance abuse cases since the start of the pandemic, and that the state has experienced a higher number of traffic fatalities related to driving under the influence.
“It is important to recognize the symptoms (of pandemic-related stress),” Parades said.
Over the next few months, the health experts warned, a greater number of Washingtonians may experience suicidal thoughts and depression.
“Going through the last phase, we will see a number of new cases,” Parades said. “We encourage you to seek help. Every region has a crisis line available to help you.”
Yoon Joo Han, the behavioral health director of the Seattle-based Asian Counseling and Referral Service, agreed.
“The (Black Lives Matter) movement, the wildfires, the pandemic … are affecting all of us,” Han said. “Many report anxiety and depression and increased domestic violence and substance abuse. The best thing we can do is be aware of the challenges we are experiencing and seek help. Ask for help. We have a lot of resources that we can help each other in our (communities.)”
Inslee spoke to Washingtonians on Thursday and said he knows times have been hard lately for many residents.
“We know that the bad air quality makes everything tougher and we know we all feel this sort of dark, oppressive cloud about an inch over our heads,” Inslee said. “COVID has been with us for more than six months and we know it’s normal to not feel OK during a pandemic.”
The wildfires and smoke have made matters even worse, Inslee said.
“Washingtonians are going through some tough times and it puts stress upon us all,” he said. “I know a lot of people are struggling with the ongoing pandemic, the historic marches for change, the wildfires, the air quality … it’s a lot to take in.”
Seeking help for mental and emotional stress, Inslee said, is not only normal, but necessary during times like this.
“Seeking help is something we can do to help ourselves and help our loved ones,” he said.
Mauseth said research has shown there are brighter times ahead.
“Resilience is, by far, the most common outcome of disasters,” she said, adding most people will return to feeling “normal” 12 to 16 months after the onset of a disaster.
To help encourage resilience in themselves or their loved ones, Mauseth said there are four things people need to do: find hope; make connections with other people (by strengthening existing relationships and making new connections in the virtual world); redefine and establish a purpose; and become more adaptable/flexible.
“Resilience is a common outcome and we can build it intentionally,” Mauseth said.
For those in need of mental health assistance, the state officials and health experts offered the following resources:
- Washington Connection — WashingtonConnection.org or 877-501-2233
- Washington Listens — 833-681-0211
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
For more resources and tips related to health and wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit coronavirus.wa.gov/wellbeing.