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Coronavirus

Social distancing could drag on for months in Colorado. How will we stay sane?

Experts offer ways to meet the mental health challenges — and risks including abuse and neglect — of prolonged social isolation.

Cindy Kroeger, Brian Kraus and their son Oliver Kraus, 6, look at a bird in Red Fox Meadows Natural Area in Fort Collins on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Kroeger said that other than canceling their spring break trip to Missouri, things have seemed pretty normal for them because they’re used to spending a lot of time together. They own a business and have been working from home and trying to get out as much as possible. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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Vincent Atchity found himself in the near-constant company of his family this week as he worked from home in his role as president and CEO of the advocacy group Mental Health Colorado. 

At one point, he half-jokes, he had to hide in the basement from his two kids, 7 and 9, to get things done. His wife also works remotely and together they’ve taken on another task, essentially home-schooling the kids during a day that hasn’t stretched to meet the challenge of school closings. 

Welcome to life in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, when measures to blunt the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, have upended familiar routines and stretched social fabric beyond the giddy semi-isolation of a snow day.

For Atchity, the unprecedented stress on Colorado’s collective mental health isn’t just a professional concern. Like most people these days, he’s living it.

“Any time a family is stuck together for a prolonged period of time, the upside is you’ve got each other,” he says. “The downside is cabin fever will set in. So what do you do?”

For the kind of massive social distancing employed in efforts to “flatten the curve” of the disease’s spread, there’s no tried-and-true mental health playbook that covers what could be weeks or even months of relative isolation. But experts offer suggestions ranging from the simple concept of self-care to introducing structure into what otherwise could become aimless hours to keeping an eye out in the community for any signs of abuse or neglect that, with kids out of school, could go undetected.

As a preface to addressing what in our lifetime stands as a first-of-its-kind social construct, Atchity finds the nomenclature for our current call to arms unfortunate. “Social distancing” represents a strategy for discouraging transfer of the coronavirus from person to person. But in actual practice, he notes, it describes the opposite of the most healthy thing we can do under these circumstances.

“What we need to practice is physical distancing,” he says, “but we should actually be practicing the opposite with regard to social behavior — establishing solidarity and putting extra effort toward social connectedness. 

“We’ve got all these great tools, right? People suffering from bubonic plague or Spanish flu of 1918, they didn’t have the advantage of Facetime, Skype, all these things we have. This is just a compelling opportunity to be more connected to one another, and make more time in the day for that.”

Isolation often can be a symptom of when we’re not doing well, says Hope Hyatt, executive director of the Colorado Mental Wellness Network, a statewide, peer-run approach to mental health. So when we engage in isolation on purpose, there are bound to be some uncomfortable moments.

“Doing that on top of all this uncertainty and lack of clarity about what is going on in our world, without the expectation of when life is going back to what it was, it’s scary,” Hyatt says. “It’s hard to wrap your brain around. When you’re not able to have the connection and do your normal self-care routine, it’s time for us to get creative and ask, ‘How can I challenge myself to try new things … what tools can I find to adapt to the current landscape?’”

Her organization has come up with a series of videos showing activities they call “isolation hacks” — small things people can do to take care of themselves. Those can be as simple as calling a friend or family member or making time for a quick home workout. Or they can be as intensive as taking an Ivy League class for free online.

Opening some windows — something that seemed more advisable earlier in the week rather than amid a drenching spring snow — can open up indoor space and create a more relaxing environment. Hyatt even has a personal favorite: Despite working at home, where videoconferencing is the rule, she takes the time to put on jewelry.

“I find that it makes me feel good,” she says, singling out specific items she calls power pieces. “I have a big ring that I wear, a reminder that, ‘I’ve got this.’ Sometimes I do that with jewelry from my grandma, and I feel like it gives me extra strength. On those Zoom calls I’m able to do, I look like my normal self with my necklace on.”

She also points to resources such as the National Council for Behavioral Health. But as life hacks go, jewelry has resonance for her.

“It’s something,” she says.

With school no longer in session and online studies unable to fully replicate the engagement, another concern has surfaced, albeit a hypothetical one at the moment. In stressful times when adults may struggle with the pressures of job loss or at least reduced income, children could be susceptible to abuse or neglect.

Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families, worries that a significant safety net has disappeared because kids aren’t in regular contact with educators.

Teachers and school officials normally form a filter of mandatory reporting when they see kids day in and day out in class. But with schools shut down, possibly eliminating in-person contact for the rest of the traditional school year, the danger of abuse or neglect could rise.

Castillo Cohen’s department already has noticed a drop in calls to the abuse and neglect hotline.

Thomas Solorio and his sister Fylesha Martinez help Solorio’s daughter, Daisha Solorio, 3, navigate the playground equipment. The siblings co-parent together. “We’re just going to ride it out and stick together,” Martinez said. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

On Monday and Tuesday of last week, when school was still in session, Castillo Cohen notes, the abuse and neglect hotline fielded 1,900 calls. This week that number dropped to 1,117. Last month, 38% of calls to the hotline came from teachers or school staff or child care providers — people who no longer are seeing kids on a daily basis.

“Without being alarmist, while those kids are not at school where they are able to have the school community keeping their eyes out for them, we as a greater community need to step in and take that role to make sure kids are safe,” Castillo Cohen says. “Are kids at greater risk in times of stress? That could create extra risk in certain families, not in others. But when we don’t have eyes on kids it’s concerning from a child welfare perspective.” 

So the agency has been talking about how families can stay active and build resilience, whether it’s by joining parenting groups on social media, connecting with friends on platforms like Google hangouts — or just talking on the phone to make sure people feel they can stay connected.

Outdoor activities also present an opportunity to connect, at a safe distance, though with the snow that hammered the Front Range on Thursday more indoor activities could be in the immediate future. 

“Even having a daily schedule can help parents keep some normalcy — things they’re doing each day around house cleaning, reading, educational activities as a group, board games,” Castillo Cohen says. “All of those are things I’m hearing from friends of mine who are at home with their kids.”

She also points out that parental resilience comes first and foremost from “taking care of yourself and asking for help when you need it.” She likens the situation to the flight attendant’s instruction to secure your own oxygen mask before helping your children. And while having kids underfoot while trying to work from home can be a recipe for stress, she advises preplanning as much as possible for those times — such as an important phone call — when interruptions would be most unwelcome. 

“Think about your strategies so you don’t have to deal with that in the moment,” she says. “I do think as families are planning out their day, there are ways to plan for what activities they can do during those meetings being held virtually, and making sure everybody is getting out of the house when they’re able to, not letting stress get in the way of being able to care for their kids and have fun.”

The duration of this type of social restriction sets it apart from the short-term experience of a snow day. But at the same time, she adds, ”this length of time will allow people to get a little more creative about how they are spending their days.”

Adults could find themselves at risk, too, amid health measures that, while perhaps staving off the coronavirus, could compound the dangers of an abusive relationship. A potential rise in incidents is “definitely on our radar,” says Brooke Ely-Milen, director of the Domestic Violence Program at the Colorado Department of Human Services.

“People are hearing the message to stay at home and socially isolate,” she says. “Those things can become challenging and unsafe if they’re in an abusive relationship. They may already be socially isolated, taken away from their friends and family. And this situation further isolates them from any support system they have.”

Ely-Milen says that services have been adapting to the new coronavirus landscape by arranging to provide telephone or video chats to help those experiencing abuse with safety planning, crisis intervention and helping them get to safe places if necessary. 

“Resources are there,” she adds. “The services may look different, but they’re there and available for anyone.”

The national hotline, 800-799-7233 or www.thehotline.org, can provide services via chat or connect individuals with a local provider.

Atchity offers a thought experiment in which parents can lean on analogous situations to explain the challenges to their kids. His children have an obsession with space. So they talked about the International Space Station, with crew members living in close proximity for months at a time.

“And they’re not family,” he adds, “which may or may not make it easier.”

Last fall, Atchity’s kids studied the voyage of the Mayflower. And while the family more fully embraces the space station analogy, they also saw similarities to the transatlantic trip. 

“It took that incredible amount of time to cross the Atlantic in a tiny wooden ship tossing up and down,” he says. “They couldn’t escape others, and they didn’t know if they would make it. You could lean over the side and throw up, but you couldn’t leave. People managed to stay strong.”

Taking a tip from the astronauts, he explains that this family time at home is not down time. It’s budgeted from start to finish. “You build a functional schedule somehow, so you’re not hanging at loose ends the way you let yourself do on the weekends,” Atchity says. “That’s a key factor to keeping everybody together.”

Fylesha Martinez swings with her daughter Monica Martinez, 7, at City Park in Fort Collins on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Martinez said that life is pretty much normal for now as she’s still working in the hotel industry. “We’re just going with the flow,” she said. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Part of that means rationing the intake of information and not obsessing about the global pandemic that created these conditions in the first place. It means staying informed, but — like the astronauts — staying focused on being productive and supportive humans.

“We can absorb news deliberately during a portion of the day when we’re feeling strong and interested,” he explains, “then every bit as deliberately cut ourselves off from that endless stream and stay focused on those things that are immediate to us, instead of fanning the flames of our anxiety. 

“The other recurring theme is to disconnect altogether from this human story by being outdoors, pay attention to emerging signs of spring, recognize there’s a different rhythm out there way larger than us, and take some solace in how things persist.”

Dealing with the group dynamic is one thing. But what about those who live alone? It’s up to the rest of us to maintain social contact with those people, Atchity says.

“There are all kinds of people living in isolation in the best of circumstances,” he says. “This will make all of that much more acute. We’ve all got responsibility to make extra time in our day by reaching out with a phone call or message of some kind so they know they’re not alone. It’s really on us to do that outreach more than on the folks who are isolated. Isolation is hard for somebody to overcome without someone reaching in.”

In Europe, he notes, we’ve seen stories of the Italians singing from their balconies and quarantined Spaniards participating in mass fitness classes despite similar social distancing. And while most Coloradans don’t live in the kind of proximity that allows for those kinds of inspiring interactions, we do have the internet and virtual cocktail hours. One of Atchity’s favorite coping mechanisms is music — in particular, one of the Spotify playlists geared specifically to the coronavirus pandemic. It begins with Peggy Lee’’s rendition of “Fever” and segues to REM’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” And on and on it goes.

As the measures to slow the virus drag on for days, weeks or months, will our ability to find new ways to bridge the social distancing keep up with the tedium? Hyatt figures we have no choice but to evolve with the circumstances. 

“This is the beginning,” she says. “I do have concerns about what this looks like in a few months. But we’ve got to keep checking in on each other. We’ve got to adapt.”

Rising Sun