As individuals, organizations and communities worldwide grapple with the impact of COVID-19, the uncertainty of the current environment can take a toll on mental health.
Based in Los Angeles, nonprofit Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services has provided mental health, substance-use and suicide prevention services for more than 75 years. Its 24-hour Suicide Prevention lines and Disaster Distress Helpline, which answered 130,000 calls last year, have never been busier. In addition to the typical calls, crisis counselors fielded more than 1,800 calls related to COVID-19 in March, compared to just 21 in February; in April they will answer 3,000 more.
First Republic spoke with Dr. Kita S. Curry, President and CEO of Didi Hirsch, on how individuals, families and business leaders can foster a “healthy new normal” in a uniquely challenging time.
Establish a routine
During times of need and disruption, creating a daily routine can be a simple, effective way for people to protect their mental health, regardless of their circumstances. “What’s important is that we see this environment as a challenge and an opportunity, without falling into hopelessness,” Curry said. “By establishing a healthy routine, we are choosing positive coping strategies that fill our world in a new way.”
- Reframe the issue
“Words shape our feelings and attitudes,” Curry advised, citing the naming of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “Safer at Home” order. “There’s a saying that ‘charity starts at home,’” Curry said; instead of thinking of yourself as being in “lockdown,” focus on the small actions that you can take to help yourself and your loved ones.
- Take care of your basic needs, to the best of your ability
Get up and go to bed at regular times; get dressed every day as if you are going outside; eat regular meals; exercise. By paying attention to your own emotions, needs and behaviors, you will be better prepared to handle challenges.
- Set up boundaries, especially if your work is more important now than ever
People who are now working remotely are spending those 40 hours a week, which would have been in a work setting, at home. “Look at this as a service as opposed to a burden or something that’s horrible,” Curry recommended, and set up distinct boundaries between your “work life” and your “home life.” This is particularly crucial for those working in critical social services that must operate during COVID-19, or organizations that will be disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Don’t feel guilty for taking time to recharge; healthy boundaries will enable you to contribute in a sustainable way.
- Limit exposure to the news
“It’s crucial to avoid addictive behaviors, and one of those is 24-hour news watching,” Curry said. Constant news consumption “raises people’s stress level —increasing the likelihood of depression, addiction or anxiety — and robs them of precious time for positive things.”
The physical distancing designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 forces people to rethink how they can connect socially. When gathering in-person is no longer feasible, isolation and loneliness can set in, especially for people who rely on social contact for support and treatment.
“It’s going to challenge our creativity, but in the long run, this crisis can be a way to bring people together and renew good habits that we’ve let fall to the wayside,” Curry said.
Once you’ve established a routine, the following tips can serve as inspiration for connecting with people both inside and outside of your household.
- Use technology judiciously
For those living with others, make a conscious effort to connect with your family or roommates — without devices, Curry advised: “Within families, it’s easy for people to go to separate rooms to play video games, or watch the series they like, so even though they’re under one roof, they’re isolated.” When establishing a routine, it can be helpful to designate a certain number of meals a week where everyone in the household cooks together and eats together, without smartphones.
- Reach out to those living alone
It’s easy to feel isolated within your four walls, especially if you’re alone. If you’re living alone, make a conscious effort to connect with family or friends, and if you have family members or friends who are living alone, pick up the phone and give them a call. Talk about the television you’ve watched, the book you’ve read, the meals you’ve cooked, and most importantly, talk about your feelings.
- Support essential workers and those on the frontlines
Much like those living alone, essential workers may feel an isolation beyond their four walls. Thank them for their commitment and dedication to the community and support them any way you can.
- Talk honestly about your feelings…
…especially if you have children in your household. “Even from a young age, children are aware; they can sense if their parents are afraid about money or someone getting sick,” Curry said. “Parents need to talk about the situation at a level their children can understand and convey what the family is doing to stay safe and healthy. This will help kids to feel less at sea.”
- Take the opportunity to learn new skills — and share the ones you do have
If you find yourself with surplus free time, consider enrolling in an online course or giving impromptu lessons via online platforms.
- Don’t hesitate to reach out for help, on behalf of yourself or others
“If someone in your life is having a hard time or showing signs of distress, don’t be afraid to bring up your worries,” Curry said. “Share your concerns and tell them about the disaster distress line or suicide prevention line.”
The health and economic ramifications of COVID-19 affect numerous people in different ways. In times of intense need, some especially vulnerable populations may be overlooked, Curry said. “I’m worried about people who live in volatile home situations, where there is a higher risk of domestic violence and child abuse if people are home-bound. I’m also worried about people who don’t have homes, people who don’t have enough food to eat every day, people who have lost their jobs or who have high-risk jobs. And, there are those at risk of deportation who are afraid to get public assistance… If we can look at our position in life from the big picture, it might be easier for us to enjoy what we have, be creative about making our lives rich and giving away some of our riches to others.”
However you choose to contribute, the following tips can offer guidance on effectively giving back during this time of need.
- Do your research before you donate. Disaster-relief giving is different from charitable giving, and it’s valuable to explore the subtleties that can inform your giving strategy. To learn more, read our article “What to Consider When Giving Back During COVID-19.”
- Consider the needs of your local community, from small businesses forced to close their doors, to social services agencies and nonprofits providing relief to families. If you are able to, build a plan for supporting your most vulnerable neighbors — both individuals and organizations — to ensure that they see the other side of this global crisis.
Lead With Compassion
In times of duress, leaders can have an especially important role in protecting their employees’ mental health. For client and staff safety, Didi Hirsch moved quickly to give almost everyone, including treatment providers, the technology needed to work from home. With over 500 staff and 215 volunteers, this was no easy task. The agency maintained reduced clinic hours for outpatient clients with special needs and continued 24/7 services at the Suicide Prevention Center and its residential treatment centers. Sites that remained open incorporated social distancing, screening for the coronavirus and aggressive cleaning into their routines.
“Make it clear that you are looking out for your staff’s best interests,” Curry said. “When people are going into work, their primary concern is, ‘am I going to be exposed?’ That is going to have the greatest impact in terms of anxiety, fear and resentment.”
Transparency for leadership is key. “We’ve been honest and regular in our communications—including when individuals at two sites tested positive (for COVID-19). I routinely email everyone in the agency and tell them what’s going on at all the sites; it helps them to know that we’re taking care of things, that we’re not hiding things from them.”
Generous vacation and sick leave can ease the economic burden of lost wages. As an organization, Didi Hirsch offered employees the option to “borrow ahead” from their vacation if they run out.
Be flexible with employees’ needs. “Some people are okay with staying at home with their kids, and some people want to go to work,” Curry said, adding that Didi Hirsch’s health provider carrier opened enrollment, so spouses of staff could be enrolled in case of a layoff. “Be conscious of the various challenges that people are facing, and think of them as not just someone who comes into work, but someone with a home life.”
Lastly, Curry advised embracing the unintentional humor that can arise when sudden remote work blurs the lines between professional life and home life. “You’re seeing each other in a new environment,” she said. “On video conference calls, someone’s little kid might wander in; one of our colleagues said during a late-hours call, ‘I wear my bathrobe at night because it’s cold in my house—get used to it.’ If you can see the humor in it and learn to laugh, those things are actually very good for our mental health.”
Remember You’re Not Alone
As we navigate and make sense of these new times, do not hesitate to reach out for help for yourself and those you care about, whether through formal, professional channels or informal, personal channels. Our words are powerful and give us the opportunity to connect with compassion, Curry said: “We’re all in this together, and while you can’t touch someone physically right now, you can certainly touch their hearts.”
You can find help 24 hours a day at:
The Disaster Distress Helpline: (800) 985-5990
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255