Roxie Romero of El Centro takes a selfie while at home practicing social distancing in El Centro on April 6. Romero, who suffers from several mental illness diagnoses, talks about how isolation and self-quarantine has affected her conditions. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ROXIE ROMERO
EL CENTRO — El Centro resident Roxie Romero routinely checks in on herself, especially during this time of self-isolation and social distancing, when many of the peer-support networks she has used to manage her own mental illness, have gone silent due to the threat of the spread of COVID.
“It’s making me do the things that help (at home) … I’m definitely checking in with my mental illness … I’ve been writing in my journal, doing self-guided meditation, working out,” the 32-year-old Romero said recently. “I’ve been showing myself some love and self-care, I guess.”
Romero, who works from home anyway, is no stranger to spending a lot of time housebound, where she and her live-in boyfriend operate a business. But as a co-facilitator of a mental illness peer support group through the Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center in El Centro, she does rely on the face-to-face interaction of the group to help herself and others manage their conditions.
Without that avenue due to mandatory social distancing and stay-at-home orders in place across the state, Romero has noticed her anxiety levels are rising and her depression increasing, yet she knows she has a bag of tricks and a set of tools are her disposal to help.
The mother of a 6-year-old daughter said she has previously been diagnosed with bipolar I disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety/panic.
“I know I’ve been getting more episodes lately. Depression, for sure. I don’t know if it has to do with the pandemic,” Romero said. “I honestly try my hardest to stay at home and only go out once a week (for groceries). There’s a strain there I think I’m feeling but probably not admitting it.”
Romero is fortunate in that she is attuned to her condition, possibly more self-aware than most. But that isn’t necessarily going to be the case with the 45 million Americans diagnosed with mental illness, many of whom rely on daily, weekly or monthly regimens of counseling, support groups, medication and other avenues of treatment that may be upended by the varying measures being undertaken across the country to deal with coronavirus.
Help is Available for the Ill
Kelly Ranasinghe, an El Centro resident and a local child welfare attorney, mental health advocate and peer group co-facilitator with Romero, said fortunately many in the behavioral health world understood early on that some of the measures that would be needed to control the spread of COVID would have adverse effects on the mentally ill.
He said organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Health developed a master handbook and resources guide in response to COVID for those suffering from mental illness, with useful tips on managing conditions and seeking out help from others. Ranasinghe is a NAMI-certified facilitator.
“We are very lucky. The mental health community jumped on this issue of isolation as soon as it came up. Isolation for people with mental illness is very dangerous,” said Ranasinghe during a recent interview. He has been diagnosed with bipolar I, PTSD and major depressive disorder in the past.
The fear and isolation caused by the current COVID pandemic can trigger anxiety and depression, Ranasinghe said, and in the case of social distancing being so sternly enforced, “our peer support groups are shut down.”
Recently, Romero said several members of the support group out of the IV LGBT center were to attempt their first support group meeting using Zoom, an online videoconferencing platform. It was not immediately known how the meeting went. The IV LGBT Resource Center can be found on Facebook to check on any future meeting times and how to access them.
Meanwhile, Ranasinghe said with social distancing put in place, “the wall has been dropped” on one recognized method of mainstream mental health treatment in the use of peer support groups.
Different Ways to Access Assistance
Fortunately, Ranasinghe said, some of that use of support systems has shifted to new and innovative approaches utilizing social media and online support, including gaming groups, crisis text lines and good old-fashioned phone calls.
“This uptick in anxiety and isolation is quite normal. Activate your emotional support network” by any means necessary, he said. “It’s not any less because it’s social media or online. … Don’t be afraid to reach out through Facetime or Skype.”
Ranasinghe said those in isolation and staying at home should try to live their lives as normally and routinely as possible, which isn’t his advice alone, but some of the direct resource information contained within the NAMI COVID handbook.
“Don’t take ‘Netflix and nachos’ too seriously,” he said. “Maintain normal rituals like wake up at your usual time, take a shower, get your coffee, make sure you’re keeping up on your medication. … Rituals help mediate and lessen anxiety.”
Ultimately, what someone suffering from mental illness is trying to avoid is a critical stage where the anxiety and illness has overtaken their ability to function, Ranasinghe said.
“Before stage four,” he called it.
“Don’t wait, particularly if you’ve never called a help line before. … This is the time you can reach out to people and get that help,” Ranasinghe said.
For 24-hour critical mental health needs, call Imperial County Behavioral Health Department’s crisis line at 800-817-5292.
Crisistextline.org advisers and counselors can also be reached through texting 741741.