New York State has taken steps to increase access to mental health care, even as officials continue to urge the public to practice social distancing.
Officials from the state Office of Mental Health announced Friday that they will streamline the approval process governing telehealth services, which will allow more providers to use that method throughout the coronavirus crisis.
“Individuals who are self-quarantined or concerned about the spread of COVID-19 may understandably choose not to keep appointments with their therapists and healthcare providers,” OMH Commissioner Dr. Ann Sullivan said in a statement.
Locally, some mental health providers report that their patients have expressed anxiety about leaving their homes during the outbreak. “Luckily, in psychiatry, we can do more telehealth,” said Mary Kathleen Martin, a certified nurse practitioner in psychiatry who provides care at the Mattituck Wellness Center.
The challenge, Ms. Martin explained in a phone interview Monday, is ensuring that phone and video conversations remain confidential and comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
Under the emergency order, some regulations will be waived to allow the use of telehealth, expand the list of providers who can deliver the service and ease other requirements, such as the need for an initial in-person consultation, state officials said.
During a phone interview Monday evening, Ms. Martin said she anticipates that by Friday, the entire Mattituck practice will move to teleconferencing. She said it’s important for mental health professionals and their patients to try and keep a normal schedule despite the disruption in nearly every aspect of life.
“For some patients [with] severe anxiety disorders, this is exacerbating it,” she said. “It’s the unknown that people are more anxious about.” In her own experience, it helps to fight fear with facts. “That helps ground people,” Ms. Martin said.
Practicing social distancing can have other impacts on our mental health, Dr. Lynn Saladino, a clinical psychologist and part-time North Fork resident, said in an interview Tuesday morning. “We’re social beings, so if we’re not connecting, depression can creep in.”
Factor in a deluge of constant news updates and fear spreading on social media and it’s easy to see how the pandemic could take a toll mentally and emotionally.
Her advice? Get ahead of it.
In addition to following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to manage stress as coronavirus spreads, Dr. Saladino and Ms. Martin outlined several ways to cope with uncertainty amid the outbreak.
Remember to turn off the television and log out of social media periodically. “It’s important to be abreast of how the community and government is responding … but you don’t need to know everyone’s opinion on toilet paper,” Ms. Martin said.
Posting photos of empty shelves at stores, she said, contributes to the panic. “Going to the grocery store is causing a lot of anxiety because there’s nothing on the shelves — and people have a misinterpretation on what that means.”
Even when there isn’t a global pandemic, most of us are glued to our phones from the moment we wake to the time we go to bed. Dr. Saladino said it’s important to make time in the evening to decompress and make sure you’re sleeping well. “Give yourself a minimum of 30 minutes before you go to bed to make sure you check out,” she said. “Let your mind come back down from some of the anxiety and news of the day.”
KEEP A ROUTINE
Whether you’re quarantined, working from home, or forced to be home since you’re not able to work, both providers emphasized the importance of establishing a routine.
“A lack of structure adds to that fragile, anxious energy,” Dr. Saladino said, adding that even simple steps such as waking up at your regular time, getting ready, practicing good hygiene or even putting some makeup on, if that’s part of your routine, can help.
GET SOME FRESH AIR
With many families facing a full-house situation, it’s important to take breaks from each other, too. That can be as simple as going outside to get air. “It’s free and it’s safe,” Ms. Martin said.
Get outside and take a break from your family. “[On the North Fork,] we at least have good access to being outside in isolated, beautiful places,” Dr. Saladino said.
“If you can get some space where you don’t have that stream of information, on your phone, anything that helps you feel grounded.”
TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY
That includes eating healthy, taking deep breaths, and staying physically active. “Things are going to be hard coming out of this, so you’re going to need your energy,” Dr. Saladino said.
Several local gyms and yoga studios that have been ordered to close have begun offering online classes and remote personal training using apps like Facebook, Instagram and Zoom.
“We will continue to keep our community strong and keep our bodies and minds healthy through this unique time,” Cutchogue-based JABS owner Jill Schroeder wrote in a Facebook post.
Underground Training in Southold and Aura Yoga in Mattituck, among others, have also announced online classes.
FIND A SILVER LINING
Ms. Martin urges anyone feeling stuck at home to try and find a silver lining — organize a messy Tupperware cabinet, get around to that project you’ve been putting off, or just relax for once.
“Despite the black cloud overhead, you can redirect your energy into something positive,” she said.
Dr. Saladino agreed — noting that the time home could present an opportunity to get around to projects that live in the “If I ever had the time to do this” box.
CONNECT WITH OTHERS
As she coaches clients through a pandemic, Dr. Saladino said she’s trying to focus on gratitude. “At a time like this, you really take some stock” on what to be grateful for despite all of the stress. She’s also encouraging people to remember that they aren’t alone. “It’s not just happening to you. It’s happening to everyone. We’re all going to have to figure out what to do on the other side of this, and we’re going to be figuring it out together.”
For more information on the state’s mental health regulatory waiver, visit omh.ny.gov.