COVID-19 Vaccines, More Treatments, Prevention Measures all Play a Role

The distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, more treatments proving to be effective against the deadly virus, and the continued practice of preventive measures such as wearing masks and watching your distance are bringing hope for better days ahead in 2021. The progress made almost a year after COVID-19 arrived in Northeast and Central Wisconsin has more people envisioning an end to the pandemic and the challenges that have come with it.

“Hope is such an empowering word,” says Jill Goldstein, CSAC, a clinical substance abuse counselor with ThedaCare Behavioral Health. ThedaCare is a Be Safe Wisconsin partner. “Each day I am reminded by the people I am blessed to work with – both patients and professionals – that hope continues and will continue to motivate us and move us forward on our journey of healing.”

Research over the years has shown a hint of hope can protect a person’s mind from anxious thoughts, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even thinking about suicide. Hope also produces endorphins in the body. The hormone helps to reduce stress and motivates people to be more productive.

“So many individuals struggled staying apart from family and friends, as well as completely changing how they went to school and work,” notes Angela Savides, LPC, CSAC, Lead Therapist and Program Coordinator, Ascension St. Elizabeth Behavioral Health, a Be Safe Wisconsin partner. “It became apparent the mental health and emotional tolls this separation and these changes have had on everyone.”

National surveys taken throughout 2020 have shown even though hope has wavered, it has stayed strong with most Americans.

Goldstein adds, “I genuinely believe that the resilience shown during 2020 will continue to grow and cultivate into 2021. It has reinforced the significant need for mental health and substance use disorder services.”

Here are some ways to keep hope alive in 2021, which many experts believe is essential to everyone’s wellbeing in the new year.

Acknowledge How You Have Adapted

Mental health experts suggest starting with a bit of reflection – both individually and a look back at how society has adjusted to the abrupt and dramatic changes that have come with the pandemic.

“It’s important to look back at the accomplishments and milestones we have reached so far,” says Savides. “We have a vaccine being distributed right now, we know masks and social distancing are effective in keeping people safe and healthy, and we have learned so much over the past year. What we have accomplished during this challenging time is incredible.”

For one: The health care system, including behavioral health care, has become more adaptable, developing a safe approach to support and treat people in need during the pandemic. “The silver lining is that these new approaches – such as telehealth, and online resources to include support groups via video and new apps – may now be additional methods to reach people with barriers previously preventing them from getting the help they needed,” Goldstein notes.

Set Small Goals

All progress is made up of small steps, experts say. While the “finish line” still may feel far away, and some people are setting New Year’s Resolutions with lofty goals, mental health professionals advise the best approach is to set small goals.

Hope is an action word. It means “to expect with confidence,” as Merriam-Webster defines the verb, so experts say think about the actions you can take to realize the hope you have for 2021.

“It’s important we focus on the things we can control. Our own health and wellness,” notes Julie Meyer, MPS, Director of Behavioral Health at ThedaCare. “Set small goals that can be accomplished. Implement a new skill or coping mechanism.”

Savides adds, “It may be helpful for anyone struggling with mental health concerns to remember every day is a new beginning, a chance to start making small changes that over time create bigger progress. Any person on any day can decide they want to do something better for themselves, whether it is reaching out for help and support professionally, becoming more active, changing their diet, engaging in activities they enjoy, or reconnecting with friends and loved ones. 2021 has at least 365 chances at making progress and taking control of their mental wellness.”

Empathize with Others & Share the Hope

“Plenty of individuals who have never struggled with anxiety or depression before faced it this year as they lost their jobs, faced continued isolation, or lost loved ones,” Meyers noted. “While this has been difficult for our collective community, it will also potentially bring about more understanding and empathy for those struggling with mental illness as we move forward beyond the pandemic.”

She is hopeful insurance companies will continue to see the value in telehealth and will keep reimbursing for such services, so behavioral health care is more accessible to all, allowing people to get the help they need even when the pandemic ends.

Acquire an Attitude of Gratitude

Being thankful for all you still have during the pandemic – instead of focusing on what you might have lost or what you still want – is important to sustaining hope.

Make moments of gratitude matter – when you were able to put dinner on the table or able to encourage a child frustrated with schoolwork to smile – by pausing and acknowledging those moments.

“We have seen a greater appreciation for what we have in our present and have gained clarity on what is truly important to us,” Goldstein says. “We encourage people to realize the importance of gratitude, mindfulness, and positive affirmations – all of which we are all capable of implementing wherever we are and at any time – and to take the time to reflect and reach out to the people in our life.”

Reach Out for Help and to Help

Over the past year, most health care systems have added additional staff, locations, and methods of connecting to people in need of behavioral health and mental health services.

“My hope is that through these efforts the stigma and shame that has at times been connected to mental health struggles and substance use disorder will continue to dissipate, and the willingness to ask for help and receive that help will continue to grow,” says Goldstein. “The emergence of the COVID vaccine brings about a sense of relief for many knowing that in time we will be able to have that human contact that is so essential to us.”

Savides notes, “We have more access than ever to a variety of supports and services thanks to technology, which includes telehealth appointments to safely meet with providers, new vaccines for COVID-19, and an increased awareness of the importance of remaining connected. We have all been through trauma over the past year, which has provided an opportunity to support each other and come together to implement positive changes.”

Remember: Complete healing takes time. Experts say continue to do all you can do to be safe – wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance – and hold onto the hope that this too shall pass.