AUSTIN (KXAN) — The spread of the novel coronavirus upended and altered the lives of many people across the country over the course of the past few weeks. While some are finding themselves unexpectedly unemployed, others are at home with children due to closed schools, others are finding themselves more lonely than ever before due to social distancing guidelines, and still others have immediate worries related to their own health or the health of family members.

It’s no wonder that local organizations tell KXAN they are hearing from more people experiencing anxiety or mental health challenges.

KXAN interviewed Karen Ranus, the executive director of NAMI Central Texas (the local member organization for the National Alliance on Mental Illness) about the challenges this time presents when it comes to mental health and what resources people can turn to. NAMI provides education, support and advocacy programs related to mental health for tens of thousands of people in Central Texas.

This is part of a week-long effort at KXAN in which we will be covering stories about maintaining mental wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic as part of our Simple Health Initiative.

“All of us will have an impact on our mental health”

Through a Zoom video chat, Karen Ranus explained that in the past, her organization used to say that one in five people were impacted by a mental health condition in any given year. But the spread of COVID-19 and the accompanying social shifts have changed that, she said.

“I think this is a time and place in which we’re gonna realize that all of us will have an impact on our mental health,” Ranus said. “Some of us, to more of a degree than others, obviously people that were already vulnerable and living with serious mental illness, potentially more than the rest of us.”

As opposed to natural disasters which may bring anxiety and fear to one region, Ranus explained that the coronavirus pandemic is unique in that it is bringing challenges to communities simultaneously across the globe.

Ranus explained that many people may be noticing anxiety, depression, or grief related to the changes in their lives. She offered up an example from her own life: watching the live stream from her church Sunday brought her to tears.

“It just really hit me hard that it’s Holy Week and I love all the rituals and traditions and stuff,” she said, recalling that her husband asked her, “‘are you OK?’ and I was like ‘I’m just grieving, like I’m grieving for this loss of the experiences that are really important to me.'”

“I think that’s part of what’s really important right now for all of us, is to name what those things are and to not be embarrassed or ashamed that we are having these feelings,” Ranus said. “Because I think that’s part of what really helps us navigate this in a more healthy way.”

Ranus explained that often where difficulties arise for people related to mental health is when they keep their problems to themselves.

“This is hard and it’s OK to say ‘this is hard'” she explained.

While public officials across the country are encouraging what they call “social distancing” to limit the spread of the virus, Ranus is offering up a new word: “physical distancing.”

She noted that while it’s important to keep the recommended distance from people to prevent infection, neglecting our human, social needs can be problematic for our mental health. Her team at NAMI has been encouraging people to turn to virtual communication: video chats, phone calls, and texts to keep relationships present in our lives. Additionally, they have been advising that people check on people in their lives who may be living alone or maybe especially lonely during this time.

Those who were already isolated or socially disconnected prior to the coronavirus pandemic are likely feeling those things to an even greater degree now, she said.

Ranus explained that many people have been turning to telemedicine to meet with mental health professionals during this time and that she has been hearing about an increasing number of professionals offering virtual therapy as well as insurance companies who are willing to cover it.

Resources at NAMI Central Texas

NAMI Central Texas has shifted in the past couple of weeks to offer more of its services online too. This week, Ranus said, NAMI will be launching its online support groups. Prior to now they’ve been referring people to other online support groups.

Additionally, NAMI is looking to bring its community education efforts online, including a new program called “Families Together” to give people information on living with mental illness or supporting someone who does.

NAMI Central Texas has seen increased interest in its online educational programs. Typically on the fourth Monday of the month, NAMI Central Texas hosts an in-person “Mind Matters” program talking about mental health, which typically 50 people attend. But when those programs were brought online during COVID-19, NAMI Central Texas had 157 people in attendance in their first online “Mind Matters” program.

Much of NAMI’s programming now is focusing on the uncertainties that COVID-19 has brought, featuring discussions like a question-and-answer session with Dr. Roshni Koli, Medical Director for Pediatric Mental Health at Dell Children’s Medical Center.

“It has been challenging because part of the work that we do is very much rooted to gathering people together, and there’s something really powerful about being in the same room together, so we’ve all had to acclimate and adjust and say ‘this is where we are right now'” Ranus said. “And what we know is gathering together, even if it means using technology to do that, has value, so we’re just going to keep doing that the best we can.”

These online support groups NAMI will be offering will still be limited by size to around fifteen people, Ranus said.

“Because ideally those work best if they are small groups so everyone has the opportunity to participate, and the online platform that we’re using does give us the opportunity to do that,” she noted.

Ranus believes this new, virtual way of reaching out to people may help NAMI offer support services for people who may not be able to get in their car and drive to an educational meeting. For that reason, she thinks what her team is learning from online programming now may become part of what NAMI does in the future to reach as many people as possible.

Finding a mental health professional

Ranus said that most therapists and mental health professionals she has heard from have quickly been making the switch to offering telemedicine sessions if they hadn’t already.

For those who are just starting their search for a mental health professional, Ranus advises them” don’t give up.”

She acknowledges that the search for a therapist can be overwhelming and daunting at times, especially with so many external stressors going on as well. Patients will need to find someone who is both accepting patients currently and accepts the type of insurance they have (if they have insurance).

“So I encourage you to don’t give up, and then you might want to find someone in your life that you can partner with on that, so is there a friend, a family member, someone who can help you with making those calls and doing the outreach?” Ranus suggested. “Because many times I find that that can be the stumbling block for people.”

Ranus is hopeful that therapists will have availability for telemedicine visits with new patients right now, she noted that the people her team is hearing from haven’t had trouble finding professionals to meet with in the past few weeks.

Changing the way we think about mental health?

Ranus has been vocal about the significant social stigma facing people who deal with mental illness. She thinks the way COVID-19 has brought anxiety, depression, and the importance of social connections to the forefront may help chip away at some of the stigmas around mental illness.

“My hope is that it will create this deeper level of empathy and compassion and understanding of how difficult it can be to want to be well, and to want to be in this very positive mental health space and not be able to,” she said.

Ranus noted that even today many people who express challenges with mental illness deal with a culture that encourages them to cope by simply thinking happy thoughts, or exercising, or “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”

She thinks that the COVID-19 world will challenge those old narratives that have previously silenced honest conversations about mental health.

“We’ll all have some experience of needing to talk to someone about it and potentially, some of us for the first time, may have to for some period of time take an antidepressant,” she noted. “So my great hope is it will really deepen everyone’s understanding and compassion and empathy for people living with mental illness in a way that nothing else could have done that in the past.”

Ranus said that she would like to see mental health treated like the health issue that it is, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

She emphasized that when it comes to mental health, it is important to make sure the public knows “to take care of that early on when you’re having those feelings of recognizing ‘I may need some help’ because it is like any other health issue.”

“The longer we wait, the more challenging it is then to treat it,” Ranus explained.

Austin-Travis County’s Integral Care has a 24/7 Crisis Helpline which people can call for information on health care, connecting with resources, or even if you’ve just had a bad day and just need someone to process with. The Helpline for Integral Care is 512-472-4357 (HELP).

You can also find resources from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Central Texas here. You can call NAMI Central Texas during normal business hours at (512)420-9810 and staff there can direct you to mental health resources and give you guidance on how to find a mental health professional.