staff writer

The coronavirus has physically affected thousands of people worldwide.

Many of those people and countless others have felt the mental effects of the pandemic.

“It can be a trigger of mental problems,” Mircea Handru, executive director of the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board of Seneca, Sandusky and Wyandot Counties, said. “We are concerned about the reality that even before this virus outbreak, we have already seen the suicide rate spiking in our community.”

Social distancing, isolation, quarantine and handwashing are among the catchphrases and buzzwords that have been commonly spoken in recent weeks and they don’t seem to be on their way out anytime soon.

With the closures of schools, restaurants and other businesses and establishments, society has been thrust into unchartered territory. And, with “more unknown than known,” in Handru’s words, human psyches are being affected.

People may not only worry about getting the virus themselves, but about friends and relatives — perhaps those who are most susceptible to serious effects, such as the elderly — being infected. And, more simply, it’s an unusual situation, which causes stress in itself.

“As rampant as we’ve seen this in the media and, in some cases, people who have actually been affected directly, we see it as a significant psychological burden and major life stressor,” said Dr. Brian Kaminski, vice-president of quality and safety for the ProMedica healthcare system, which operates ProMedica Fostoria Community Hospital. “And then you add into that the fact that things are shutting down — schools, businesses, centers where we usually get together and places where people usually have their social lives and their regular daily activities — and that’s adding additional stress.

“That does have an impact on people. It can have an impact on people who are ordinarily living stress-free lives and go about their day in a productive, meaningful and happy way and it can dramatically affect to an even greater extent people who might already be dealing with a life stressor, either an event in their life or mental illness or other stressors that create a burden on people in their daily lives. So, it can be from all directions.”

Among the results can be unusual behaviors, such as panic attacks and acting out in different ways.

“As we’ve recommended social distancing, that has its own stress,” Kaminski said. “Humans are social beings. We depend upon that for our own well-being, for our own productivity and for our own sense of happiness and fulfillment. And we’ve taken that away to a fairly great extent by asking people to socially isolate themselves and remove themselves from networks that usually add happiness and joy and fulfillment to their lives. So, when you take that away, many people struggle and people have different ways of expressing that struggle.”

For those already receiving mental care, Handru recommends that it continues, even if either therapists of clients don’t want to take the risk of shared company.

“We are trying to encourage our clients to do counseling over the phone, also keeping in mind that if families or individuals don’t have a phone or have limited minutes, we will try to figure out how we can do it over the internet so that we can keep in touch with them,” Handru said, noting that some group therapy sessions may actually have to be canceled.

Technology is an alternative for others who may now be limited in their contact with others, such as shut-ins and residents of nursing or group homes.

“Without a doubt, it is an adjustment, and what we try to encourage for everybody is to really adopt a glass-half-full attitude and try to turn all of your negatives into positives,” Kaminksi said. “One way to look at it would be to say, ‘This is horrible because my loved one can no longer visit me.’ Another way to look at that would be to say, ‘You know what? My loved one can no longer visit me, but how great is it that I have this technology that allows me to see them on a screen and see their faces and their emotions and their reactions?’ Certainly, that’s better than the days when we were unable to do that.

“If it’s possible, see the positives because it can almost always be worse and we’re very fortunate to have these types of technology at our fingertips and it seems to me it extends to all types of populations at this point in time. I know the senior- care population is less often to use technology, but I witness my own parents using it all the time and they’re in their 70s, and we see patients that use it. And overcoming the obstacles and adding those things to their lives is also a function of purpose.”

Though a person’s activities and contact with others may be limited, “we would recommend in every case, to the extent possible, to create a sense of structure and normalcy in your life,” Kaminski said.

“In any setting, when there’s a stressful event … even if you have to be isolated in your home, still plan your day. Decide what you’re going to do, whether it be a hobby, a board game, interacting through the various electronic means that we have, whether it be social media or a telephone call or Facetime, and to continue to do things that feel productive, that feel meaningful and add structure to your life, just as you would even if you didn’t have the stressor in your life. Those things can be dramatically helpful for your mental health and your mental well-being, and those things are tied directly into physical health and physical well-being.”

For those who are struggling mentally and may need something ranging from simply a partner in conversation to professional help, Handru urges making a call to his board’s crisis hotline, which was to be additionally staffed this week. Calls can be made to 1-800-826-1306 at any time of day or night, every day of the year.

Handru said every person will receive individual attention.

“We’re going to analyze every case one on one,” he said.