Talking about mental health with Joe Honsberger

Photo courtesy of JCS

The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health. It leaves depressed people alone to their thoughts, traps anxious people in a fear of potential sickness and steals busywork for those with ADHD.

In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study that U.S. adults show “considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19.”

In July, CDC Director Robert Redfield stated there had been a spike in suicides. In August, the World Health Organization identified large disruptions to national mental health services. In September, the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine said there had been a 65 percent increase in calls and emails since March.

Will things start to turn around?

Joe Honsberger, senior manager of therapy services at Jewish Community Services in Baltimore, is hopeful.

At the start of the pandemic, Honsberger said, he witnessed a decline in his clientele’s mental health.

“Initially, when we went remote on March 16 — I will never forget the day — we were scrambling to help everyone. We thought it would be only for a month, so a lot of clients were going to wait until the office opened to come back,” Honsberger said. “Now, people are more settled in to this new lifestyle. But there is obviously an increase in anxiety and depression because of isolation.”

While extroverts like himself often lose energy from the lack of socialization, he’s cheerful that there are good things to focus on. For example, some of his more introverted clients seem to find the pandemic lifestyle easier on their anxiety. Even for those whose mental health isn’t an obstacle, the lack of transportation requirements makes it easier on some people.

“For some people, walking to the office or traveling through rain or snow used to be a hindrance,” he said. “I actually see some people receive more help now, which was a pleasant surprise.”

One concern is the limitations of online therapy. Honsberger’s staff sees about 115 to 120 clients a week, mostly through Zoom. While he is happy that this has been a sufficient method of communication for some clients, many of JCS’s elderly patients do not have access to Zoom. Some don’t have modern technology, some don’t know how to use it and others simply can’t afford it. He’s talked some clients into upgrading to flip phones so that he may call them, but communication is still strained.

Other challenges to mental health in the pandemic include substance addictions and emotionally unhealthy elationships.

So what can we do?

Honsberger suggests taking hot showers to de-stress, eating healthy, sleeping eight hours a night, walking around, watching spending habits, exercising and avoiding constant news or negative television. “I know I’ve already had enough stress at work so I don’t know why I’d want to come home and watch a trauma show,” he laughed.

He also often helps clients practice mindfulness — a type of meditation where one pauses to hyperfocus on their sensory receptors in the present moment. It can be practiced through thoughtful, slow eating, or careful, reflective walks. Studies have shown that it can decrease cognitive decline, reduce cell aging and reduce psychological pain.

Another tip Honsberger promotes is keeping a schedule. He believes routine — waking up at the same time, keeping a bedtime and working normal hours — makes a huge difference.

Above all, Honsberger advises everyone to remember who and what they’re grateful for and that which makes them happy.

And if all else fails, don’t be afraid to get help.

“The pandemic is scary, I’ve known people who had COVID and died. But not everything is bad. It’s important to keep a positive attitude and ask for help when you need it,” Honsberger said. “It bothers me when people associate therapy with weakness, because it’s not. I wouldn’t be in this field if I didn’t know it was perfectly fine to ask for help.”


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