Go Outdoors, Get Counseling to Fight Pandemic’s Mental Health Issues

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The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the mental health and wellbeing of people around the world and, even in the Coachella Valley, the challenges continue and should not be underestimated.

For those battling depression, anxiety, a bipolar disorder, PTSD, or addiction — to name a few conditions — before the pandemic, the isolation it took to stay safe from COVID-19 only exacerbated the problem. “People who suffered from those illnesses started to feel the pressure,” says Sameh Elsanadi, a psychiatrist and the medical director of Eisenhower Behavioral Health, noting that he saw an uptick in patients who were feeling suicidal and self-medicating. “They got overwhelmed, and they lost trust in the system, and their doctors’ ability to help them.”

Chalk it up to the lonelines of sheltering at home and the ensuing social-distancing guidelines. “Once people feel isolated, they get into their own heads and start to feel things and can find it difficult to get out of that cycle,” says addiction specialist Scott Kiloby, founder of The Kiloby Center for Recovery in Rancho Mirage. The center’s method of addressing substance abuse primarily focuses on mindfulness for the treatment of addiction and its underlying causes.

Fortunately, workarounds for isolation emerged along with coping strategies that remain useful today. Technology was an initial hurdle for some older patients, but with assistance, most now use Zoom and FaceTime for face-to-face interactions, allowing for telemedicine and feeling closer to family and friends. In counseling sessions, Elsanadi recommends avoiding triggers of anxiety and depression. “For example,” he says, “at some point in 2020, politics and the pandemic mangled together and patients could barely differentiate. So, we’d urge them to watch foreign news and come to realize the whole world is suffering with this and to see how other countries are dealing with it.”

Daylight exposure is also critical to mental health. “Time spent outdoors enhances neuro-chemicals in the brain than can help to overcome stress and anxiety,” Elsanadi says, adding that people feel less inclined to stay at home as protocols loosen.

Practicing breathing techniques can have a profound effect on mental health as well. “There are many breathing exercises that can help calm the central nervous system to help draw attention from the mind,” Kiloby says. “For example, try breathing in slowly through your nose while counting to four, hold for four more counts and then exhale through your mouth slowly for four counts. Do this a couple of times a day and it should give you an overall calming effect.”

Elsanadi has observed some positive things to come out of the pandemic, including more relaxed patients who were previously anxious due to social or work demands. “Working from home reduced some people’s anxiety and increased their productivity,” he says. It had positive implications on family and friend relationships as well, as people began to appreciate one another and quite often reconcile. “Several patients said they started talking to their son or daughter again after a number of years of being estranged.”

And as the pandemic recedes, a new kind of optimism has emerged. “People feel like they’ve made it through something,” Elsanadi says. “They’re using the term ‘daydreaming’ a lot lately. They’re daydreaming about all the fun stuff they are going to do post-COVID. It’s as if they’ve uncovered this hidden joy-making ability they didn’t know they had.”

The pandemic has caused a lot of people’s old pain to come to the surface but it has also fostered greater mental health awareness. “All of the issues that the pandemic has brought boiling-up to the surface for many of us — feelings, thoughts, and emotions that were already there, can make people more ready to take care of themselves and address these long festering issues,” says Kiloby, who has observed people practicing self-care in the form of seeking out mental health professionals, using mindfulness, meditation, inquiry, or yoga in an effort to survive the times. “The inadvertent upside to all of this is that more people are starting to take better care of their mental health, which is always a big win.”

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