Online college class work. Getting out of bed, getting dressed. Walking the dog. Having family dinner around the table. Taking advantage of access to the outdoors.
These are just a few of the activities Tara Peckham, 20, has taken part in over the past week since she’s been self-quarantining with her family in Aspen.
After learning a person she’d been in close contact with while studying abroad in Spain tested positive for COVID-19 — and given the multiple interactions she’d had with international travelers as she made her way to Aspen from Barcelona — Peckham decided it was best to self-quarantine for two weeks once she got to her parents’ home to ensure she didn’t spread the novel coronavirus if she has it.
On Thursday, Peckham said she and her parents were feeling well and not experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms. The family is doing their best to maintain as much normalcy as possible while in quarantine and focus on the positives of staying away from others.
“For myself, remembering why it’s important that we are taking these precautions really makes them feel more worth it,” Peckham said. “It’s not necessarily like you’re putting yourself at risk but what are you doing for the greater benefit of your community.”
Whether it’s self-quarantine, isolation or practicing social distancing, county officials have recognized the need to support both the physical and mental health of all locals from Aspen to Parachute during the COVID-19 outbreak — and all of the multi-faceted uncertainty, anxiety and stress that comes with it.
That’s why the Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties’ public health departments are partnering with Aspen Strong, Aspen Hope Center and Mind Springs Health to form a mental health coordination team dedicated to pushing out mental wellness information to tri-county residents and connecting them with mental health resources.
“With the ever-evolving information being communicated to the public about COVID-19 and the limitations that may continue to take place in our community, Aspen Strong, the Aspen Hope Center, Mind Springs, our private practitioners, and public health departments want to make sure you are prioritizing your overall WELLNESS and taking steps to reduce stress and anxiety,” a community letter from the mental health coordination team says.
“During this time of uncertainty we want you to know that we SEE you. We want you to know that social distancing doesn’t have to mean social disconnection.”
From listing available mental telehealth resources and public health information pages to providing mental wellness tips and “emotional toolkits,” the partnering organizations are working to ensure locals feel supported emotionally during the COVID-19 outbreak in Colorado.
Christina King, a local licensed professional counselor and founder of Aspen Strong, said the mental health coordination team formed March 15 after Pitkin County officials received some mental health-related calls to the Aspen to Parachute COVID-19 Community Hotline.
“On Sunday morning Nan (Sundeen) said we need a mental health team to come together, and by 2 p.m. we were all on the phone,” King said.
King said Aspen Strong, a nonprofit which aims to act as a connector among locals, professionals, businesses and all of the mental health resources available in the Roaring Fork Valley, is taking the lead on the information dissemination for the team, which will send out weekly newsletters promoting mental wellness and hygiene.
The team also is hoping to launch a series of virtual town hall-like community meetings to discuss what emotions people may be feeling as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak and its related closures, along with how to recognize and cope with these emotions as early as this week, King said.
In addition to promoting resources and pushing out information, the Aspen Hope Center and Mind Springs Health will take weekly turns fielding any mental health-related calls that make it to the COVID-19 community hotline, King said. Area mental health providers also will be on standby to get on the line with locals if the need elevates to a level the Hope Center and Mind Springs can’t handle, which hasn’t happened yet.
“We’re continuing to identify things we can do to support the community,” King said. “There’s a lot of good communication and talk amongst all of us and a great support system for the whole valley.”
Both the World Health Organization and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledge stress, anxiety and depression as normal emotions that people may experience as a result of crises like the global novel coronavirus pandemic.
On top of these emotions, Jackie Skramstad, clinical operations manager for Mind Springs Health, said the uncertainty and ever-changing aspect of the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak also can make people feel unsafe, bringing back memories of other unsafe or traumatic experiences and leading some people to grow angry or edgy.
“It’s not the fact that it’s a medical situation; it’s the fact that this is a situation that we are uncertain about,” Skramstad said.
“It creates a level of feeling kind of out of control, and so that leaves us with a feeling of not really feeling safe. … Our mental health and wellness can then be impacted and that’s where that feeling edgy, angry, helpless, sad and depressed can come in.”
Mind Springs Health is the Western Slope’s largest provider of counseling and therapy for mental wellness, according to its website.
While the organization hasn’t seen a spike in people trying to access mental health services, Skramstad said Mind Springs Health is pushing out a variety of resources — like free access to mystrength.com, “the health club for your mind” that provides digital support for mind, body and spirit with the code “WELLNESSWEB” — through its social media channels to reach a broader scope of people who may need varying levels of mental wellness support.
Skramstad also said Mind Springs Health moved to create virtual offices in the valley area and that practitioners are maintaining contact with their clients via video or phone calls.
But the virtual piece of maintaining mental wellness goes beyond telehealth sessions and mental wellness websites. Skramstad also said online yoga classes, FaceTime calls with friends and family, and other virtual connectors can help people maintain a sense of normalcy and to interact with others from afar.
“I think that as the reality sets in that this is not going away in a week or two and that this is going to be a longer journey, that’s going to add to people’s anxiety and stress,” Skramstad said.
“So far I have not seen that and I think people are just trying to make sense of the situation, … that’s why people should find creative ways to stay connected with friends, family and community, even if it’s virtually. It’s so important.”
Similar to Mind Springs Health, both the Aspen Hope Center and Youth Zone are taking an approach to maintaining connection with clients through telehealth video or phone calls and also are working to reach a broader scope of people who may be in need.
Lori Mueller, executive director with Youth Zone, said the Colorado nonprofit aimed at inspiring healthy relationships between youth, families and communities also shifted to remote operations this week, and is working to continue to support valley families through counseling and other life-skills services.
Mueller said Youth Zone receives the bulk of its referrals through the court system and schools, and that because those sources aren’t really functioning right now, it’s harder to know which kids and families need Youth Zone’s help.
“As you can imagine, it’s more difficult for us just to shut our doors because our clients have mental health, substance and addiction issues and families are struggling,” Mueller said. “In any time of crisis like this, sometimes the stress levels go up and the struggles intensify, they don’t go away. … I just am hoping kids or parents will reach out and get the support they need during this time.”
When asked about the best way for parents to talk with their kids about the COVID-19 outbreak and what it means, Mueller said it roots back to good, open communication.
“Good communication between your kids doesn’t change based on the topic,” Mueller said. “The same good communication skills you would use when talking with your kids about drugs or any conflict they’re having with friends, you’re using that same open communication with open-ended questions.”
This means asking young adults and children how they are feeling, what they are thinking, working not to minimize their feelings or fears, and showing them what good coping skills look like, Mueller said.
“You’re just checking in on a daily basis and letting that be, validating how they’re feeling and communicating to them that you’re going to be there to listen to them and you’re going to help support them through this,” Mueller said of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I look out the window and there’s kids riding their bikes all over the place and laughing and joking and it’s like yup, there are some positives of how kids are dealing with all of this.”
For Peckham, who was on day five of her self-quarantine with her family Thursday, transitioning from a study abroad program in Spain to living with her parents in Aspen hasn’t been the easiest to deal with.
She said she’s felt some negative emotions related to the fact that she’s not in an ideal situation and also has felt a little unmotivated, but otherwise hasn’t noticed any heightened feelings of stress, anxiety or depression.
“If I had to be doing this on my own completely in my own space without my parents around to spend time with, I think I would feel a lot more of the emotional toll of self-quarantining,” Peckham said. “I think it’s important if you’re living with other people to take advantage of those interactions.”
Through keeping a daily routine, connecting with her friends in creative ways like sharing “isolation playlists,” and spending time with her parents, Peckham said she’s working to maintain some routine and a positive outlook.
But although she feels it’s important to keep a daily routine and to not wallow in the negatives associated with the COVID-19 outbreak, Peckham also advised people to let themselves feel the current situation as it really is.
“I think a lot of people are trying to take advantage of this opportunity to get a lot of stuff done, but I think it’s also important to remember that you don’t need to take advantage of every moment that you’re spending at home in isolation,” Peckham said.
“A lot of the tasks in our daily lives are removed right now, so we’re trying to replace them with other tasks that may be more recreational, but it’s still a similar type of pressure. I think alleviating that pressure and letting yourself have an off-day because this is a really bizarre situation and letting yourself feel that is important.”
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