How to deal with a pandemic period that is impacting everyone

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger was on hand at a recent virtual seminar hosted by Ethnic Media Services, joining a host of experts in a discussion of how L.A. County residents can cope with the “holiday blues.” She noted that it is especially difficult to keep mentally resilient during this, a second pandemic-era holiday season.

“Many individuals are facing multiple losses—having lost family members and friends,” she said, noting that the pandemic has meant significant changes to daily life routines for everyone, making the everyday more challenging and impacting one’s disposition.

“Coming into the holidays we need to embrace those who are struggling,” Barger said. “The isolation has definitely taken its toll…I think we all go through it. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak, it means that you are strong.”  

Barger explained that because depression is the number one issue facing people, one of her greatest passions and priorities is to create solutions to support community mental health. There are many services available through various county departments and she hopes to help break the stigma of mental healthcare and remind residents that it is OK to ask for help. 

“Mental health stress doesn’t discriminate,” Barger said. “The holiday blues can affect anyone of any background.” 

DMH helpline

Dr. Jonathan Sherin, director of LA County’s Department of Mental Health (DMH), agreed and recommended that citizens concerned for their own mental health or that of a loved one should call the 24-hour DMH helpline at (800) 854-7771 for real-time emotional support. He expects the number of calls to go up during the holidays.

“If you see somebody not doing well, reach out to them,” he said.

Additionally, the county has “headspace” and “I prevail” app-based paradigms which offer free web-based, confidential, anonymous treatments—tech solutions that the DMH is leveraging to deal with the large-scale pandemic that is impacting everyone’s mental health.

“Clearly covid has shocked the entire world for a lot longer than anyone could have expected,” Sherin said, noting that additional variants, including the atmosphere of social unrest, global warming and a number of other factors have created a sense of existential crisis for some.  

 “It’s critical to stay connected with ourselves, loved ones, friends and neighbors,” he said. “We have to listen to each other. Now is the time to recognize how interconnected we are.”

Sherin added that it is important to allow each other to have opinions and be respectful of those opinions. Additionally, small, random acts of kindness, even those as small as letting another driver into your lane, or opening a door for another can make one feel better about oneself and make others feel good because they are being recognized.

Vaccinations and family discord

“Now is the time to actively listen and be tolerant,” Sherin said. “If family members are not comfortable with those who are  not vaccinated, that’s their right and they can state that.”

Sherin recommended having healthy dialogues—discussions about vaccines and masks before family holiday gatherings, stating one’s parameters for safety and listening to the ideas of others. He said that the lack of autonomy, when one is told what to do and what not to do, can be challenging.

“It’s a part of us learning to deal with our interdependence,” Sherin said, stressing the need to engage with each other and calmly talk through problems, being respectful and caring toward one another, even though conflict is the norm in times of serious stress. “Listen like you haven’t before.”

Jorge Partida del Toro, chief of Psychology at DMH, was also on the panel and spoke on the topic of unresolved grief—the fact that the pandemic has not allowed communities to grieve properly, release feelings of loss, let go and say goodbye to loved ones. 

As of Nov. 27, LA County has recorded more than 25,700 covid deaths during the pandemic, but in most cases there were no grieving process rituals allowed.

“A lot of folks went to the hospital and were never seen again,” Partida del Toro said. “The human mind, the brain has the ability to adapt to critical situations if they’re short bursts, but when they become more normative, when the sadness and the grief is prolonged, what ends up happening is that psychologically, there’s an impact of sometimes feeling overwhelmed, getting to a point when we sometimes feel we’re losing hope.”

During those times, people often ignore their own signs and symptoms of stressors, as they are doing just enough to get by and don’t have the ability to communicate with others as to what is happening. The zoom meeting participants said that there is a sacred medicine in self care. When one is able to care for themselves, they have more energy to care for others.

Experts add that some people are afraid to be open and honest because they do not want to scare others in the family. This can result in domestic violence and other harmful, acting-out behaviors witnessed in the news recently.

Then there are the children, whose social development has been affected for over a year. Youth in communities of color, in particular, have had issues with lagging behind in academic performance. Parents and educators are not quite prepared to deal with what that really means for their children, Partida del Toro said.

“The disruption occurs with children’s psycho-social development,” he said. “Their standards of beauty, the dramatic increase in tension and anxiety that children feel.”

Partida del Toro said this can be countered when caregivers create a normative experience, e.g. families making opportunities to sit at a table for dinner, or sharing other meals together. 

Many parents were raised with the idea that silence equaled strength. Partida del Toro explained that is just not true. Quiet isolation actually robs families of opportunities to uplift each other.

“Setting up normal times for meals, for homework, to discuss things we have a hard time discussing,” he said, gives children tools to emotionally express themselves can prevent traumatization. “Many children in our communities don’t have permission to discuss how they feel.”

Dr. Eloisa Gonzalez, of the county Department of Public Health (DPH) reported that more than 6 million LA County residents are now vaccinated and now that the vaccine is available to everyone age 5 and up, numbers are increasing. Now 95 percent of those over 65 have received at last one dose. More than 75 percent of residents 12-17 and 75 percent aged 5 and over have gotten at least one dose.  

Blacks lag in vaccinations

But DPH reports that only 54 percent of the county’s Black community are vaccinated, compared to  59 percent of Latinx and 72 percent of White county residents. 

Boosters are available to anyone who received Pfizer or Moderna shots six months ago and Johnson & Johnson at least two months ago.

“It is important for us to get an additional dose so we have greater protection against the virus,” Gonzalez said.

To find a vaccination site, visit vaccinatelacounty.com, where residents can search by their zip code for a site. Residents can also search by the brand of vaccine provided at each site. Vaccines are always free and open to eligible individuals who work or live in L.A. county. 

Many vaccination sites are in high-need communities. In addition to health centers, the county is reaching out with mobile units to ensure simple and easy access to vaccinations and high quality information.

“It’s likely we’ll be dealing with covid for quite a while.” Gonzalez said, stressing everyone should reduce participation in non-essential activities, stay masked in high-risk settings, isolate and quarantine when they become infected  and move gatherings and activities outdoors when possible..  

“Get used to seeing vaccinations being required in many settings,” she said. “Vaccine mandates are there to protect us all—employees, employers and their families.”

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