Experts say maintaining or developing routines can be an effective way to cope with the new realities of the coronavirus.
Experts say maintaining or developing routines can be an effective way to cope with the new realities of the coronavirus. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Mental health experts and domestic violence advocates across Santa Barbara County are rising to meet community needs and critical services as the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic upends daily life.

In the wake of COVID-19, county Behavioral Wellness 24/7 access line screeners have “described the intensities of the calls as being much higher, so people sounding or expressing higher intensity and levels of stress, potential suicidal ideation and those types of calls,” said Suzanne Grimmesey, chief quality care and strategy officer for the county Department of Behavioral Wellness.

The access line is available for questions, mental health services and substance abuse referrals throughout the county.

Established in 2017 in response to the Thomas Fire and Jan. 9 debris flows, the Community Wellness Team has developed services tailored to COVID-19-related needs, such as telehealth and being accessible countywide. Online support groups were formed and utilized well, Grimmesey said.

“We have a cluster of older adults where it’s helpful to have daily check-ins with them,” she said.

As people adjust to the new reality of the coronavirus, Grimmesey recommends that people maintain “as much as a routine of things as possible.”

“That’s not entirely possible,” she said. “It may be developing new routines.”

During a recent webinar for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an expert suggested that people dedicate time to activities that bring joy and distract from challenges.

“There’s an endless number of things that can distract you,” said Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health. “Find things that help you focus on the things that make you feel good about life — even though many of us are constrained within the small confines of our home.”

In response to COVID-19, many people aren’t able to meet in person for clinical sessions and programs.

About 90 percent of mental health providers have switched over to tele-mental health services and video-based meetings, Gruttadaro said.

She said it’s “an important time to check in with each other,” and she encouraged people to “stay engaged with family and friends — this is the absolute key time to be asking for extra support, especially if you’re someone with a mental health or substance use condition who could be struggling with the anxiety, stress and uncertainty that’s coming with this pandemic.”

People Experiencing Domestic Violence During the COVID-19 Crisis

Domestic Violence Solutions for Santa Barbara County is a full-service agency offering 24-hour emergency shelter and services for domestic violence victims.

Executive Director Jan Campbell explained the precautions that DVS is taking in the wake of the coronavirus.

“Our model in the past — or up until last month — is a personal model,” she said. “When we are working with clients, they are in trauma.”

Social distancing measures have made it difficult to provide a more personal support experience.

In the past, DVS mostly served people who came into the shelter. The organization had started moving out more into the community for preventive work and community counseling groups, Campbell said.

Social distancing measures in place during the coronavirus pandemic can make it difficult to maintain personal connections.

Social distancing measures in place during the coronavirus pandemic can make it difficult to maintain personal connections outside the home. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Coronavirus isolation has changed things. It’s blocked people from seeking in-person services. People have been required to stay inside and can leave their homes for necessities only.

In response, DVS switched to virtual support services and consultation amid COVID-19. It also is conducting interviews for eligible clients, case management and holding other meetings via phone or email.

DVS’ counseling calls increased up to 40 percent, Campbell said.

“Our counseling calls started small back in February and have increased since this whole thing has unfolded,” she said.

The DVS emergency shelter in Santa Barbara is a dorm-like, communal living space. The facility ceased accepting new residents to minimize the potential danger of community contact.

“When the shelter-in-place order came, we were almost full in Santa Barbara,” Campbell said. “We decided to not accept any more clients into the Santa Barbara shelter because there was no way we could monitor social distancing.”

DVS continues providing shelter and vital support services. Anyone experiencing or aware of domestic violence can call its crisis and information line, staffed 24 hours a day, at 805.964.5245.

“Any kind of unbalancing of a difficult situation can lead to violence,” Campbell said. “The whole country is going through something they never experienced. People who were already fragile are even more fragile.”

People across the globe are struggling to adapt to a new reality of stay-at-home orders, social distancing measures and self-isolation to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to Alana Walczak, CEO of the Santa Barbara County-based nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation).

“Family dynamics are tested in close quarters while financial insecurities bring a significant layer of stress and anxiety,” Walczak said in a news statement. “For many American children, circumstances of trauma, abuse and neglect preexisted the pandemic.”

About 2.9 million cases of child abuse are reported in the United States annually, Walczak said.

“Not only do children absorb the growing family and societal fears, but high levels of tension put them at greater risk,” she said. “As a pandemic grows outside our walls, there is a quiet epidemic happening behind closed doors.”

Even in safe households, Walczak said, social distancing and reduced human contact because of the statewide shelter-in-place orders can take a serious toll on parents.

Studies show that domestic violence and child abuse are linked to increased stress levels, Walczak said. 

“Right now, there are many additional stressors in families’ lives,” Walczak said. “Families are strapped with fears of financial instability, food and job insecurity, confined living circumstances, the challenges of juggling work and childrearing responsibilities, and rising pandemic fears as the virus hits closer to home.”

Walczak offered strategies to help assist families:

» Make a list of supportive people to have regular communication with via phone or video chat. Talk about your experiences and share your feelings with loved ones and friends.

» Relax your body often, and take deep breaths, stretch, meditate or pray, or engage in activities.

» Take breaks outside, with social distancing in mind. Take a family walk before or after dinner.

» Pace yourself between stressful activities and do something fun after a hard task.

» Set aside phones, tablets and television for quality time with children.

» Maintain a regular and consistent routine at bedtime.

» Make a conscious effort to choose healthier snacks with a nutritional boost.

» Turn off the news and take breaks from social media.

» Schedule individual time with free videos available for guided meditation and exercise.

» Maintain a sense of hope and positivity.

In addition, Walczak recommended some online resources:

» The National Domestic Violence Hotline has tips about staying safe during COVID-19. People also can refer or request support by calling the hotline at 1.800.799.7233.

» Santa Barbara County-based CALM  has counseling sessions via phone or video conferencing. People can refer or request services via or 805.965.2376.

» Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration issued tips about practical strategies of self-care and connection with others.

“The world is experiencing a seismic shift in routines, health and household realities,” Walczak said. “In many cases, these changes are exasperating preexisting trauma in the home. Now is the time to reach out to each other and those in acute crisis and put tools and resources to work.”

Here are more resources for addressing mental health:

» The National Alliance on Mental Illness has online resources related to mental health and workplace, and offers a helpline people can call, as well as a COVID-19 information sheet.

» The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggestions for managing stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

» The American Psychiatric Association has several coronavirus resources for people in need of assistance. The association also has guidance for people working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.