When Gov. Andrew Cuomo put the state on pause, calls to the National Alliance on Mental Illness of NYC’s helpline hit fast-forward.
“We’re seeing the emotional and psychological toll that living through this pandemic is taking on people,” said Matt Kudish, the 40-year-old group’s executive director.
“We’re seeing calls lasting longer than normal for individuals seeking support,” he added. “We’re hearing from new people, and those who either had mental health challenges in the past or have been caring for someone who does and have noticed some of these symptoms return.”
The isolation and uncertainty embedded in the coronavirus crisis offer new challenges to those struggling with mental illnesses as they battle to co-exist with their diagnosis.
Cuomo, on Sunday, noted the widespread stress the crisis is placing on New Yorkers.
“Don’t underestimate the trauma this has created for people,” the governor said, as he touted the state’s emotional support helpline (1-844-863-9314). “We’re going through hell.”
THE CITY spoke with New Yorkers whose lives are touched by mental illness about how they’re coping during trying times.
Breaking the News Cycle
In 2006, Katherine Ponte found herself glued to TV new reports of war in the Middle East.
“I couldn’t step away,” said the 50-year-old Upper East Side resident. “There were constant breaking news alerts. I thought what was happening in the Middle East going to spill over into the U.S. And I thought the world was going to end as a result.”
Her stress reached a boiling point, culminating in her grabbing a hammer from a toolbox and smashing her TV monitor to pieces. It marked the first time she was hospitalized for the severe bipolar disorder she’d been diagnosed with six years earlier.
Looking back, Ponte said her multiple relapses all came about in similar fashion: global issues invoking a sense that the end of the world was near, followed by a sense of helplessness and frustration.
Today, Ponte runs her own online mental illness peer support group called For Like Minds. She said learning how to manage her disorder has prepared her for this moment.
But she worries about the impact that the current news cycle is having on others trying to maintain their mental health.
“You develop a heightened sense of anxiety over everything that’s going on,” she said. “People with mental illnesses have a difficult time with uncertainty and it can be extremely hard for them to manage.”
These days, with constant developments in the battle against the coronavirus, Ponte has limited her news consumption with the help of her husband.
“He tells me what I need to know,” she said. “I’ve been very focused on what’s happening in New York State, which is what impacts me most directly as opposed to looking at it from a global perspective.”
Solace in Animal Crossing
Claire Alvarez has been teaching ESL classes online since mid March when she began working at home.
But she’s shied away from remote therapy sessions.
“Over the course of this whole thing, I think I’ve realized that I prefer in-person conversations,” said Alvarez, 26, of Ridgewood, Queens.
At the age of 13, Alvarez was diagnosed with clinical depression. A little over a decade later, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which is known to flood the mind with random thoughts of self-doubt and negativity.
Keeping those symptoms under control has proved a major challenge.
“With my depression, I’m high functioning, but not in this state,” she said. “Combined with my borderline personality disorder, the two of them are sort of bouncing off of each other at this point because I’m spending so much time alone. I’m trying to get a hold of it during the day, but at night it’s really hard.”
But at such a trying time in her life, Alverez said she’s found solace in a trendy pastime that has helped millions of others stuck at home around the world.
“I’ve been playing a lot of Animal Crossing on my Switch,” she said.
The recently released “New Horizons” edition gives the player a unique island and home to customize to their liking — all while completing simple but addicting tasks such as fishing, bug catching, bartering and socializing with other players.
“It’s a nostalgic game for me,” she said, noting she’s been a fan of the series since it began in 2001. “It’s comforting. It’s a great way to kill time. When I play, I can completely relax my brain and focus on this one thing instead of a billion characters and scenes going through my head.”
Staying Calm for Family
John and his wife are glad to be working out of their Park Slope home for a change, allowing them to support their thirty-something son, who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder a decade ago.
But now, as before the pandemic, the couple is finding help for the families of mentally ill people scarce.
“Families don’t really have much support in the way of tools,” said John, 60. “When you say your son has schizoaffective disorder, nobody shows up with a lasagna. Nobody says, ‘Okay, what can we do to help this family.’ And they should.”
John said the condition affects his son’s ability to “connect to other people.”
“It’s a combination of a mood disorder, like bipolar, but also a distorting, delusional disorder like schizophrenia,” he said. “They can become paranoid and they can misread [social] cues very easily. So the world becomes very frightening to them. Typically, people with schizoaffective disorder tend to withdraw and become more solitary, have fewer friendships and fewer connections.”
In-person connections with others can become a lifeline for people who suffer from schizoaffective disorder.
For John’s son, being surrounded by loved ones, combined with phone sessions with his therapist, has helped him cope during an unsettling time.
John said that culturally, America is still grasping the severity and scale of the mental illness crisis and how to properly help those affected. Through his work with mental health groups like the NAMI-NYC, John and his wife have learned to manage their own mental health as they care for their son.
“Siblings and parents and husbands and wives of somebody dealing with these illnesses need to find their own support, and somebody that they can talk to about it,” John said. “That’s really key because when you’re stable and you’re feeling less stressed, you bring a calm into the house for your loved one.”
A Bathtub Refuge
Gray, an accountant now working from home in The Bronx, has made his bathtub his new office.
He lives with ADHD and autism, and needs to avoid distractions that would cripple his productivity — especially with two roommates also working out of their 400-square-foot studio apartment.
“Sometimes all three of us are Zooming at the same time and it makes it harder than ever to focus,” Gray, 42, told THE CITY. “Conversations begin to blur together when there are a lot of people in the room talking at once. I can’t concentrate because my mind becomes hyperactive. Even with headphones, it becomes a chaotic mess.”
Gray says he hasn’t struggled with focusing on work since he was a child. As an adult with his own office, he managed his condition well.
Then the coronavirus hit.
Trying to conduct remote meetings with his colleagues from a bathroom has been an anxiety-inducing exercise.
“I feel less professional because I’m just puttering around on the computer at home,” he said. “It’s kind of awkward.”
Though he doesn’t do therapy, Gray has found an escape by immersing himself in fiction.
“I feel it takes me to a different mental state and I can imagine I’m somewhere else,” he said. “One book I recently read was ‘The Books of Magic’ by Neil Gaiman, and it was very similar to Harry Potter. That kind of totally fake adventure keeps me from dwelling on the weird stuff.”
He’s also tried to stay optimistic about his new life under quarantine.
“I’m not really super stressed compared to some other people,” he said, noting the severity of the pandemic. “There’s this chart online that tracks how many people are sick, so I’ve been monitoring that. It seems to be going down every day.
“I try to think about it going away eventually.”
This story was originally published on [May 18, 2020] by THE CITY.”
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