Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

COVID-19 challenges mental health

The risk of mental health issues grows during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by @nina_p_v via Twenty20

New York City is quiet. Midtown Manhattan – often bustling – bares little traffic. A pedestrian could find people avoiding one another like two magnets of the same charge. In advent of COVID-19, the city continues to adjust to slow the virus’ spread. However, the unusual period produces unintended issues.

Living adjustments to beat the coronavirus bring about mental health concerns in New York. Governments, nonprofits and individuals work to treat these consequences.

To abate COVID-19’s spread, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and City Mayor Bill de Blasio urged people to remain home if possible. In March, Cuomo signed an executive order that required the state’s non-essential businesses to close “in-office personnel functions.” Many people went remote. They had to work from home. And social distancing’s become a frequent part of day-to-day life.

As people continue to physically isolate themselves to slow COVID-19’s spread, their mental health may come under greater risk.

The elderly face loneliness due to family moving away, retirement, disability or more.

Senior centers have long sought to lessen the loneliness felt by elderly persons. Community programs, activities and meals offer opportunities for older adults to engage with one another and quiet negative thoughts – even if for brief moments.

COVID-19 changed these daily and weekly rituals.

Henry Street Settlement is an organization in Lower Manhattan. It provides an umbrella of services – social, arts and health care programs – to neighborhood residents and other New Yorkers. A chunk of its recipients are part of the senior community.

Yet, many of the organization’s services changed to remote. Updated April 22, Henry Street said the number of its clients that receive Meals on Wheels food grew to over 2,200 people.

It tries to limit face-to-face contact to prevent health risks for its clientele – which includes seniors and immunocompromised individuals.

The organization said it checks on isolated seniors to help ensure they have access to health care resources if needed.

Maria Litwin, who said she arrived in New York from Puerto Rico in the 1950s, is one of the organization’s senior clients. She said she has depression.

Prior to Henry Street’s necessary changes, Litwin recalled engaging in a wide range of programs with fellow seniors. Among the activities, she sewed, did crochet, ate with people, played bingo and attended karaoke.

They helped her quiet negative thoughts. She enjoyed going to the senior center. “It usually made me relax a little bit,” she said.

After Henry Street made critical changes to keep its seniors from getting COVID-19, Litwin’s activities were greatly reduced.

Though she still crochets.

Younger people’s routines changed under COVID-19 as well.

Care providers continue to adjust. Litwin said her social worker at Henry Street, Jeremy Rivera, a man in his 20s, now calls her and his other clients by phone – rather than opting for face-to-face meetings. She added that a nurse calls her too.

In speaking about phone calls and follow-ups with clients, Rivera said, “I like to describe it as ‘being a person.’”

Also, Rivera noted that he has resources to offer or reference for the clients he speaks with.

However, communication by phone can create challenges. Calls offer little body language as cues for Rivera to observe. He said he can understand why a senior might not answer a phone call. They might be out of town. They might be taking a nap.

However, these new unknowns can create anxiety for Rivera, who wants to make sure the seniors are okay. Concerns sometimes weighed on his mind.

“I used to take it home quiet often,” he said.

Rivera takes precautions to not catch COVID-19 or spread it to his clients. While he remains committed to doing them, they sometimes create anxiety or affect his mental health.

Even though he largely conducts his work from Henry Street’s office, his extra caution begins early into the workday.

He takes a series of trains to travel from the Bronx to work in Lower Manhattan. And he tries to limit physical contact on the subway to lower his risk of getting COVID-19.  “I do my best not to touch those poles,” he said.

Like employees at other organizations, COVID-19 has caused Rivera to make hard decisions. In one phone call, he had to turn away the daughter of an elderly woman who attends Henry Street’s senior center. He said he learned that the daughter had the coronavirus.

“She had mentioned that her mom was all she had left. She started to cry. I tried to console her over the phone. To make sure that she didn’t leave or end the call empty-handed,” Rivera said, “I [gave] her the number for NYC Well” – a free and confidential support service from the city for, including, mental health.

Near Henry Street is New York University. Students at the school face mental health consequences of the pandemic as well.

Shannon Hu is a junior at NYU and a member of Active Minds, a nonprofit organization that sets out to raise mental health awareness.

On March 16, New York University’s president sent an email indicating that classes and examinations will be remote through spring semester’s end.

Student residencies at NYU’s New York campus were to close temporarily, the email added, and “students must be out by no later than March 22, and preferably within 48 hours.”

However, Hu lives in an apartment in NYC. She studies neuroscience and hopes to become a doctor. She said many of her classes for the pre-medicine track include labs – hands-on learning. COVID-19 and NYU’s decision to take classes remote created uncertainty, which then created anxiety.

“One of my big stresses was that I wouldn’t be getting the right experiences for pre-medicine, Hu said, “and that having online labs would be a sub-par experience – or it would look subpar to wherever I’d decide to apply to.”

She noted that she also works at a nursing home. She said that the home takes special precautions to reduce COVID-19 risks for senior residents. And she explained that the home currently bars visitors, with the exception of special cases.

“It’s pretty sad,” she said. “They’re mostly in their rooms now.”

“Some of them don’t really understand why no one is visiting them,” Hu later added. “We’re trying our best to connect them with FaceTime and Skype.”

Two of Hu’s freshman schoolmates – also members of Active Minds – grew anxious too. Both left for their homes outside NYC.

One of them, Aliana Whelan, said she used her desk at her on-campus job to focus and get work done. Now she’s home.

The other classmate, Alyssa Goldberg returned home to a loved-one with notable risk to COVID-19. She said her father has a respiratory condition called reactive airway disease and she had to take extra precautions.

Yet, this uncommon period also highlights ways that could bolster mental health.

Although the Henry Street helps provide mental health services, Litwin said she remains a client of Gouverneur hospital in Manhattan for therapy. However, she also said that Henry Street helps her obtain access to Medicaid.

NYC Well remains in place.

New York State offers the Emotional Support Line, which provides free and confidential mental health support. In addition, in a press release on March 25, Governor Cuomo announced 6,000 mental health workers agreed to volunteer to provide online services for people.

There are tools at the university level.

NYU said that many of its medical and mental health services went virtual. In an email, it pointed to its Wellness Exchange, a 24-hour mental health service through phone and online.

And there are individual tools or ways to boost one’s mental health.

Several interviewees said socializing helps. Phone and online are ways to do so.

Hu noted that she has Headspace, an app that provides guided mediation. And Rivera said he meditates.

“I try to stay strong,” he went on to say. “Listening to my jazz, meditating and doing what I can to take mental breaks away from the coronavirus.”

Hu and Rivera try to limit news consumption. “Try to pay attention to the news in the morning,” Rivera said. “But that’s it. Not have it on 24/7.”

Several interviewees expressed that some form of structure helps them. While a person remains in their room or home, their self-discipline could weather. Both little activity or face-to-face interactions could have negative consequences.

Hu said she makes a schedule to help her stay disciplined and on top of tasks. She recommends the tool as a possible solution for others who seek more regimented or organized days.

“If you don’t have a structured routine, I think it’s very easy for your work to overwhelm you.”

Brian Demo is a NYU graduate journalism student in the Magazine and Digital Storytelling program






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