Terri White, Chief Executive Officer of Mental Health Association Oklahoma. (Courtesy Mental Health Association Oklahoma)

As coronavirus cases continue to surge across the state, social distancing and isolation become increasingly important. 

But the precautions that protect our physical health are damaging the mental health of many Oklahomans, said Terri White, Chief Executive Officer of Mental Health Association Oklahoma. 

White served as commissioner for the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services for 13 years before joining the nonprofit this fall. 

We asked White about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and how to cope as winter weather looms. Her responses have been edited lightly. 

Q: What effects is the pandemic having on Oklahoman’s mental health?

A: The COVID-19 pandemic has threatened the physical health of Oklahomans, obviously. But the threat of the virus, and social distancing and isolation, which are very necessary to protect health, also has caused increases in anxiety, loneliness and isolation. And in addition to those, we know that there’s economic fallout from the pandemic and economic fallout has placed Oklahomans at risk for having additional mental health and substance abuse disorders, some of which results in death, like suicide and overdose. And an increasingly large number of people are experiencing unemployment and financial stress, which could lead to more substance use, more depression, more suicide and more overdoses. 

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Q: What are some impacts that we’re already seeing as a result of those struggles?

A: There’s been an increase in homelessness since the pandemic started because shelters around the state have had to go to a lower capacity, often half capacity or less, because as you go to social distancing, you have to let fewer people in the building. According to the Homeless Alliance, there’s been an increase of 600 additional homeless people since the beginning of the pandemic period, just from that change alone. And that doesn’t even address folks who may have become homeless due to economic reasons. 

Q: How is Oklahoma responding to the new homeless population?

A: The city of Tulsa has already opened the emergency overflow shelter, and the Mental Health Association Oklahoma is operating in conjunction with the Tulsa Day Center for the homeless. We have the capacity for 150 people. We opened that the second week in September and we are now almost at capacity. And as winter is coming and it’s getting cold, more people are seeking shelter and there are less opportunities for shelter. The city of Oklahoma City is also pursuing an emergency overflow shelter for just that reason. There’s a real risk that we are going to see an even more desperate, dramatic increase to homelessness. 

Q: Do you anticipate any changes with the holiday season approaching?

A: Well, we know that isolation and feeling lonely has a significant impact on mental health and has increased depression and anxiety. This is a time of year where folks would normally be getting together with other people, but might not this year. So, they may feel more lonely and we may see increases in depression and anxiety, and we would expect to see that. 

One of the tough things about the pandemic is that for our physical health, particularly, if we’re in contact with vulnerable or at-risk populations, or when there are surges in virus numbers like we’re experiencing across our state right now, it is critical that we take the measures we know will help prevent the spread of COVID. That includes social distancing, obviously masks, hand washing, all of those things. But as we talk about being socially distant, for some people that means continuing isolation, because that’s what we have to do to protect our physical health. And that is paramount right now, especially given the virus rates in Oklahoma. But that can exacerbate mental health. That isolation can lead to anxiety, fear, depression, loneliness. And so sometimes those things do come into conflict and we can’t choose one over the other. That’s what’s so hard about this. 

“Our leaders and citizens need to get the rates of this virus under control so we don’t have to continue this isolation that can have a negative impact on our mental health.” 

Terri White, Chief Executive Officer of Mental Health Association Oklahoma. 

Q: How do we balance what’s best for our physical and mental health if they’re in conflict?

A: Our leaders and citizens need to get the rates of this virus under control so we don’t have to continue this isolation that can have a negative impact on our mental health. 

Q: What tips do you have for people who are struggling?

A: As far as what to do when you’re facing stress or anxiety or worrying or isolation, try to maintain your usual eating and sleeping patterns. Those are really important. Engage in physical activity, whether that is chores around the house or taking a walk in your neighborhood. Doing physical activity in a way that is safe can really make a difference. Limiting your intake of alcohol and caffeine can really have a positive effect on your anxiety and your depression. Make sure you’re really engaging and taking care of your overall health by doing things like taking stress breaks or time-outs, whether that’s meditation, whether that is reading a good book or watching a movie. Do something to distract yourself. 

And there are ways to continue to connect and socialize safely at a distance, whether that is finding safe distances outside to make connections as long as the weather permits, or taking advantage of online platforms or phones. Also, I think it’s incredibly important to remember that even if we’re not struggling, we probably know people who are. So, making sure we’re reaching out is really important.

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