Washington Prepares For Mental Health Impacts Of Coronavirus

Lucas Combos

OLYMPIA, WA — Washington's leading behavioral health experts are bracing for the long-term emotional fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Based on historical patterns and Washington's current needs, the state expects somewhere between 2 and 3 million residents will experience some adverse effects related to the health crisis, including symptoms of depression, heightened stress and anxiety.

Two of the state's leading experts in disaster psychology and mental health studied the behavioral patterns recorded in the wake of other large-scale disasters, including 9/11, to anticipate the mental toll of the virus in Washington.

Researchers said this crisis is likely to affect people differently than other disasters, with stronger impacts related to social isolation and economic disruption, and a smaller likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Typically, researchers said, earlier stages of a disaster can provide for some emotional highs, including feelings of heroism and community cohesion, as everyone rises to meet a common challenge. Right now, Washington is moving past that "honeymoon phase," and rates of depression are expected to increase over the next 3-6 months.

(Department of Health)

During the summer months, health experts anticipate more "acting out," including heightened aggression, substance abuse, potential violence and illegal behavior. Others may react by "acting in," which includes feelings of hopelessness, withdrawals from social interactions and voluntary isolation.

"These are very, very normal responses to a highly abnormal situation," said Dr. Kira Mauseth, a senior instructor of psychology at Seattle University.

From a clinical perspective, researchers said, acts of anger or aggression are almost always the result of an underlying fear, and listening to one another's concerns can help us learn what is underneath the anger.

(Department of Health)

Heading into the fall months will bring another period of concern, as grief associated with the pandemic will likely add to seasonal triggers associated with changing weather and the approaching holidays.

Dr. Keri Waterland, a director for the Washington State Health Care Authority, said ending the stigma around behavioral health and letting each other know it's okay to ask for help are essential tools.

"The acknowledgment is that it's okay not to feel okay," Waterland said. "It's normal to feel exactly what you are feeling in this time."

Aside from seeking clinical help, Waterland said it's important to stay in contact with friends and loved ones and build a team of support.

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Federal funding for mental health programs in Washington

Washington received $4 million in federal funding for increased behavioral health needs related to the pandemic, according to the health authority. The first grant will help launch the "Washington Listens" program, which will relieve other crisis networks by providing a support line and 120 counselors to assist those in need of help.

The second grant will increase substance abuse and mental health treatment for those who are either uninsured or underinsured.

The state is also working to boost telehealth options across the state and examining ways to connect people who lack access to technology to receive treatment.

Learn more about mental health services available in Washington here.

This article originally appeared on the Seattle Patch