Bob Bick: Preparing for what comes after

Bob Bick, CEO at Howard Center

The community’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has been monumental. Our neighbors in the medical professions and in our community-based programs are doing heroic work and it seems as though nearly every Vermonter is finding ways to contribute. People are making innumerable sacrifices in our collective effort to overcome the crisis and bring about a timely and safe return to our everyday lives.

At Howard Center I have always been humbled by the deep well of generosity in our community and all the friends and neighbors who contribute to support our work every year. Now we are seeing that same generosity coupled with Vermont’s trademark creativity and ingenuity as businesses are shifting manufacturing capacity from their usual products to instead make desperately needed masks and hand sanitizers, and individuals are sewing masks in their homes. Donations of items like these have been a tremendous help to Howard Center and we are deeply grateful.

“I am Vermont Strong” — is the mantra Vermonters united under immediately following Tropical Storm Irene nearly a decade ago. The storm took a devastating toll on the state’s infrastructure and on many families’ homes and livelihoods. The iconic phrase was described by the Brattleboro Reformer as a representation of “the best parts of Vermont’s spirit and sense of community” and it became a symbol of the recovery effort and of Vermonter’s rising from unimaginable. Natural disasters can also impact the health of the community by causing temporary mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders, and they can also have longer term impacts on mental health.

Even as we all do our part to accommodate the immediate crisis, we must also anticipate and prepare for the long term effects that COVID-19 will have in the community. Over the last two months we have experienced substantial and stressful changes to our daily lives. Our routines have been disrupted. We are feeling isolated because of social distancing and telecommuting, and many are deeply worried about the well-being of loved ones and our own chances of becoming ill. Thousands of Vermonters have lost jobs and face extreme economic hardship. We are all wondering when and if this will finally end.

These factors are going to exacerbate mental health issues that were already causing serious concerns long before the arrival of COVID-19. Both Vermont and the United States have been experiencing high rates of suicide, alcohol and drug use, and overdose. All are linked to depression which will likely affect many more Americans because of the crisis. University of Washington researchers Jonathan Kanter and Katherine Manbeck have gone so far as to call on communities to prepare for a potential depression epidemic.

So far, the available data supports these concerns. A poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in late March found that 45 percent of U.S. adults say their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus. Among certain sub-groups like those with poor health, women with children under 18, and those who have lost work, the reported mental health impacts are even greater.

Research on previous outbreaks like the SARS epidemic of 2003 also point to serious long-term mental health repercussions, especially for those directly affected. A study of SARS survivors conducted nearly three years after the epidemic found that one-fourth of those surveyed had post-traumatic stress disorder and more than 15 percent had depressive disorders. Family members of SARS patients also experienced psychological problems including feelings of depression and stigmatization.

Health care workers are another group that needs and will continue to need support. Health professionals and others working every day face-to-face with vulnerable populations are experiencing extreme stress as they cope with tremendously demanding jobs, fears of infection, and worries about bringing the disease home to their families. During the SARS outbreak, health care workers in Toronto reported intense emotional reactions including fear, loneliness, anger, anxiety and uncertainty.

The lack of social connection among Americans was another pre-COVID worry of experts like former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy who has written about the prevalence of loneliness in our society. While Murthy warns that the pandemic could trigger a further breakdown of social bonds and what he calls a social recession marked by more widespread loneliness and chronic stress, he remains hopeful that it could also trigger quite the opposite – a resurgence and a revival of social connections. It could offer an opportunity for meaningful change as we use the crisis to spark conversations about the importance of relationships and social connections in our lives. Having those conversations and recognizing that we are all vulnerable can make it easier to reach out, to check in with someone, to be honest about the impact on our own experience. Murthy’s new book just out last month, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World may be a guidepost to affirm the importance of human connection and the social power of community.

And, as we focus on the situation before us today, providers like Howard Center and Vermont’s other designated and specialized service agencies are thinking about these issues, building the supports that will be necessary to help the community recover, and transforming our agencies in response to the mental health impacts of COVID-19. As an organization founded in 1865 to support orphans and widows of the Civil War, Howard Center has been adapting to emergent community needs for more than 150 years and we are now, once again, reinventing our self to meet the unique challenges of our current times.

As individuals we can all take steps to ease anxiety and distress, not just for ourselves but for each other. Take a walk, exercise, or listen to music that lifts your spirits. Do things that engage your mind in positive ways like reading, pursuing a hobby, or making art, and stay connected with loved ones and friends by phone or video calls. Offer support to others and don’t hesitate to seek support if you feel you need it. If you are struggling with anxiety or depression or if you just need to connect, dial 2-1-1 to find mental health services anywhere in Vermont. Support is available and providers across the state are using video telehealth services so you can connect without leaving home. By paying attention to self-care and healthy routines, staying connected, and sharing support, we can all contribute to better outcomes for our communities.

Although today’s situation sometimes feels completely unprecedented and overwhelming, in the decades since Howard Center’s first predecessor organization was formed Vermonters have faced several periods that could be seen as at least as trying as the situation we face today. In every case our community has persevered and recovered. Together we have been through global pandemics, wars, and depression that touched all our communities and locally we’ve endured floods, ice storms, and more. Through it all we have supported and cared for each other, always coming together as a community to help one another overcome every hardship.

Dr. Vivek Murthy makes four recommendations to address the social strains we’re experiencing in his new book. 1) Spend time each day with those you love — at least 15 minutes. 2) Focus on each other and give one another undivided attention. No multitasking, especially on Zoom. 3) Embrace solitude. Connecting with yourself is a prerequisite for connecting with others. 4) Help and be helped. Give and receive service to strengthen our social bonds.

Long after the acute risk of physical illness from COVID-19 eventually subsides, the economic, social, and mental health effects of the disease will remain. Howard Center and Vermont’s other mental health providers, along with social service organizations, government agencies, schools, philanthropists, and many other partners all must be prepared to join in the recovery effort. Vermonters will come together as they always do, as makers, thinkers, and doers, to find ways to contribute, and to help one another so we can, together, define our new shared reality, not be defined by it.

Bob Bick is CEO of Howard Center, Vermont’s largest designated agency, and lives in Shelburne.