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The latest South Carolina Public Radio News reports on the spread of the coronavirus and efforts to fight it.

Maintaining Mental Health in the Face of COVID-19

File photo
S.C. Telehealth Alliance
File photo

Many people are on edge, even as businesses start to open back up in the face of the COVID pandemic,worrying about whether it's too soon, and will more people being out and about bring a spike in the numbers of cases or deaths? 

These kinds of concerns are seen commonly by mental health professionals.  University of South Carolina psychology professor Sayward Harrison says though COVID is in many ways unprecedented, some things can be known from previous disasters, such as Sept. 11.  "These large scale disasters are almost always accompanied by increases in anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorders, many types of challenges to our well-being."

In the sense that everyone experiences it together, the coronavirus epidemic is like other calamities.  However, it's not exactly the same, said Harrison.  "COVID-19 is really quite different because of this need for social distancing. For other disasters that we've all experienced together, typically we're able to be around each other to offer support.  And right now because of the need for continued social distancing, I think that makes our response to COVID-19 a bit more challenging, because we have to figure out how to get people the help that they need, but doing it in a way that is safe."

Helping in a safe way is a major concern of school social workers who, according to USC Social Work Professor Aidyn Iachini, have been prevented from meeting with students and families by the COVID outbreak, and are trying to maintain those relationships by transitioning from face-to-face meetings to remote services, called tele-mental health.  This is done through phone calls and video conferencing technologies such as Skype and Zoom, which have been allowed, ironically, by the coming of the virus.  "Mechanisms such as FaceTime and Skype are really not used often in service delivery because they're not HIPAA compliant," said Iachini.  "But restrictions have been lifted at this time that allow those forms of technology to be used to ensure continuity of services for families.  So I think people are really getting creative in how they can continue to reach those families and ...provide them the support that they need."

In some areas of the state, however, a problem exists when it comes to accessibility to the technology to take advantage of these remote services.  There are pockets that do not have Internet access.   But to combat this disadvantage, Iachini said school districts are setting up wi-fi "hot spots," "buses that have wi- fi capability that drive out to certain parts of that area or county...but it is predicated on the idea that people have accessibility to the Internet or some form of technology, and we know that not all folks have that type of access, so that's been an ongoing challenge." 

Harrison cautioned that even after the disease subsides - if it does - people can expect lingering after-effects.  "For people who have had personal traumatic experiences with it, who had become ill themselves or witnessed their family members or others who had become ill, there can be lasting effects, certainly.   I do think as well, this is going to change the way that we think about doing therapy, that we think about screening people for different mental health conditions and getting them the care and the services they need."

To that end, Iachini added that mental health and social services will be better in the future because of what doctors are learning from this pandemic.  The silver lining to this situation, she said, is that COVID is forcing people to be more innovative and creative in methods of treatment, which will be of great benefit if another crisis arises.